Today I’m reviewing an old favourite of mine, a buried treasure that a lot of folks seem to have overlooked or never heard of. A very different type of spellcaster known as the Chaos Mage. The chaos mage is a 3.0 class from the phenomenal “Encyclopedia Arcane” series which are still available through Mongoose publishing.
When I decided to start my website this was one of the very first classes I wanted to review because it encapsulates nearly everything I want to discuss in a class. Since it is a 3.0 class I get to cover some basic conversion stuff and take a look at how converting it changes the class. Since the class was conceived in a pre-optimization environment I can cover both the classic and optimized versions of the chaos mage and how they differ statistically and in terms of feel and roleplaying. Lastly, a common theme through many of my articles will be exploring how the inclusion of new content can change things, and the Chaos mage is all about change. Without further adieu lets get to it!
The chaos mage is an extremely free and fluid spellcasting class. It’s not bound by spell slots, spells known, or mana. However that’s not to say that it’s spellcasting is free or unlimited, in fact one of the very central most themes of the class, and generally in most Encyclopedia arcane books, is the price of magic. Chaos mage’s suffer very real damage when they unleash their spells and they never know if this damage will be lethal or nonlethal. This is done very well and I’m a huge fan of it for two reasons:
First and foremost this is very flavourful. The idea of unleashing a spell so powerful that your skin weeps blood or your bones crack is truly evocative and it can lend your character an unsettling sense of wrongness, or an amazing feeling of raw power depending on how it’s played up. All at once this frees the mage from the traditional magical words and components and books and all the other classic wizard fare, but it also gives you a rainbow of colours to re-paint your character with. The way the system is set up a chaos mage can count on their spell to work, but they have no guarantee whether their magic will give them a minor headache or a fatal aneurism. This lack of control is very much the opposite of a wizard, or sorcerer even, who are both perfectly aware of what their spell will and won’t do. Without control you can take your character in several directions depending on how you want to play them. A chaos mage can be frightened by their own power, or excited by it, they can legitimately have their magic feel like a burden, an accident, or a curse without feeling like they’ve just been “Cursed with awesome”.
Second, this system is exciting tactically as well. This class even more than most plays very differently based on your level of optimization, for new players or just those who prefer some challenge and excitement it means the chaos mage must constantly be careful about abusing their magic, never overusing it for fear of losing those precious hit points that keep them in the land of the living. This also means that a chaos mage must be very clever and creative with their magic, making every spell count as much as possible, which is a far more interesting challenge when you build your own spells on the fly! A well built or optimized chaos mage however sits on the opposite end of the spectrum, instead becoming more interesting than a wizard by virtue of having a much lower ceiling for optimization. A chaos mage who has access to perpetual healing, or just an exceedingly high caster level check and immunity to nonlethal damage gets to truly dive in and play with their magic and get that real feeling of wild arcane might that powerhungry players crave. But even this is not a garuntee of safety, a chaos mage with all the hit points in the world is still not safe from the other much more extreme price of chaotic magic.
Everytime a chaos mage casts a spell they have a small chance of causing a catastrophic chaotic backlash that corrupts and mutates their mind, body, and soul. This sounds like a heck of a drawback, but it’s handled very well and it’s crucially important for the traditional feeling of the class. These mutations are not immediately character-destroying, and for the first few stages not even very noticible. But as they advance further and further down the “path of chaos” they make fundamental alterations to the character in both appearance and personality. For that reason I strongly recommend DM and player working together and choosing a path they both agree on, or better yet creating a whole new one. It’s not a hard process and it’s essentially choosing 9 increasingly bad penalties coupled with nine increasingly uncomfortable side effects and then the final tenth step which is essentially a spectacular event that leads to your beloved chaos mage being truly and irrevocably gone. The addition of the path of chaos helps tie all chaos mages together and unite them under the re-curring theme of magic having a price. Even if you build a chaos mage who can cast their spells everytime and never take lethal, or even any, damage you still can’t cast spells with utter wild abandon for fear of suffering the chaotic backlash. Every step on every path is packed with flavour that can help grow and progress your character, while also carrying little dings to stats and checks that will make the loss a very real measurable change.
Between damage and the potential to lose yourself, the Chaos Mage certainly has some fine reasons to not sling those spells all day long. Personally that’s one of the best parts. The chaos mage enhances party balance not through a lack of power, but rather through a surplus of danger. Can the chaos mage dismantle that door faster than the rogue can pick the lock? Yes. Can the chaos mage deal more damage than the traditional fighter? Yes. Can the chaos mage give better buffs than the bard’s music? Yes. Will they do all of those? Not for very long! The smart chaos mage has a very good reason to let the whole party shine. They can be humble and a better team player than most since every time their allies solve a problem themselves the Chaos Mage doesn’t have to risk collapsing from exhaustion or becoming less person and more tree.
With all this price, surely they must get a great deal of power to compensate for it right? Absolutely, The chaos mage has unimaginable power, or rather as much power as you can imagine. They literally create their spells as they cast them by assembling affects from a large list and adding a few modifiers. It’s similar to the word magic found in the Pathfinder supplement "Ultimate Magic". Chaos magic however is simple enough that with some practise it can be assembled during the players turn without much slowdown. The chaos mage has the perfect spell for the job as long as they can figure out how to put it together from the ample toolbox of effects. I would recommend to anyone playing a Chaos mage to prepare a few spell combinations they like and just spend some time looking at the effects and picking out a few favourite combinations just to keep the turn flow going. The potential for this class is fantastic and it can be as strong or weak as desired.
While the spellcasting is of course the main course this class has a few tasty side dishes as well.
The chaos mage gains a standalone ability that effectively allows them to counterspell arcane spells like a regular wizard with a very decent chance of success. The drawback? Using chaos magic in this way posses the same risks as normal casting. This means a chaos mage has a solid defence against arcane spellcasters without resorting to spell resistance or huge saves, and this ability also means they can help protect the party and gives them a good reason to not just unload everything on an enemy force.
The Chaos mage gets a very heavily modified familiar that is in dire need of some updating. As written the familiar granted is remarkably strong and versatile and is much more like having a cohort. It is useable as it is, but the way it’s put together is likely to rub experienced players the wrong way. For anyone who already has the chaos magic book and is interested in my statistical analysis I’ve included a section at the end that details what changes I’d make and why.
The other major class ability of the Chaos Mage helps to pull the character back from the brink of unplayability. It’s a feature that can be used each week to burn experience points to reverse some of the mutation caused by chaotic backlash. This ability obviously comes into play very different based on how frequently the chaos mage adventures but it gives the DM a great chance to help keep them as corrupted as suits the story, whether that means giving them extra downtime to revert further, or pushing them harder to force the changes to come faster. I would note that it would not be unreasonable for a DM who has their group dungeon delving daily to change the ability to 1/day if they desired. This ability also of course needs converting, which I’ll cover in detail at the end.
It doesn’t seem like a lot of features but one look at the spellcasting system and you’ll know you’re equipped with unlimited possibilities, from hurling blasts of energy miles away to bombard settlements, to having a version of plane shift that forces you to pass through every plane on the way to your destination, to being able to summon a cluster of illusionary copies of yourself that explode when attacked, this class has a huge amount of style and flair at a considerable price. But as I’ve alluded to that price may vary considerably…
I’ve mentioned a few times now that this class can turn out very differently based on how it’s played and built and I want to mention some specifics. First and foremost this class basses all of it’s powers on caster level check. Roll good and your spell doesn’t hurt you as badly. Roll bad and it’s lethal, roll aweful and you’re on the fast track to being a shadow dissipating into memory. But there are several ways to get around this check and thusly negate all chance of the worst side effects occurring. There are plenty of examples but there are two I want to call out specifically for what they represent and I want to address different ways they can be handled. First: Arcane mastery. Arcane mastery lets you take a 10 on your caster level checks, and your spell dc’s are based on a formula that is not only predictable but manipulatable, and your wild magic causes a backlash only on a natural 1. So all those wonderful things I said about having those limitations and drawbacks? Gone. For the price of one feat you’ve changed the whole landscape of the class. Note that it’s “changed” not “ruined”. The class works very different for having arcane mastery, but even just a significant number of rerolls on hand from luck feats, items, ect, can have a similar effect. However if both the DM and player are comfortable with a stronger more reliable chaos mage then there’s no real problem to be had, however I’d personally recommend still requiring the player to roll a d20 and have a 1 still cause a chaotic backlash, but that’s just my personal preference. The second thing to change the class dramatically comes from Pathfinder and it’s the Addition of Mythic characters.
For those not in the know “Mythic” is so far Pathfinder’s closest answer to 3.0’s Epic rules and among many other benefits it can provide a huge pool of rerolls per day not to mention a plethora of ways to increase durability and hit points. While on the surface it seems like just another way to mitigate the balancing factor’s of the class’s spellcasting I would actually completely reverse my standpoint on a Mythic Chaos Mage. If there was ever a time or place for a powerful, fluid spellcasting system full of reality warping abilities with no downsides it would be a mythic game. And even thematically, the idea of a chaos mage who learned to balance his chaotic energies and become one with the primordial energy of the universe is one of the finest Mythic origins I can think of. Likewise for an epic, or even just high powered or optimized, game with a Chaos Mage it could likewise be acceptable to allow such things to mitigate the drawbacks. On a related note an epic Chaos Mage practically writes itself and scales absolutely superbly even without epic spellcasting, which could also be seamlessly added to the class.
The most important thing however is to be on the same page as the DM. If one of you is thinking gritty, dirty, suffering agony caused by your magic, and the other is thinking constantly summoning animated swords to dance around you and fight on your behalf while you sip tea, then you’re gonna have either a bad time, or a very interesting game. But as long as your theme is consistent and fits the campaign. And when it comes to campaigns and Chaos Magic there’s a lot of fantastic options. From locations and npc’s warped by corrupted magic, to legendary mages who can alter reality to their whims, to a world where magic has broken, or not yet been fully formed, Chaos Mages can add a lot of flavour to any world.
The class itself is my main focus but the book has several other fine additions including two Magnificent prestige classes. The bloodcarver allows a chaos mage to channel their power through self inflicted wounds, guaranteeing they’ll suffer some damage but making their spells easier to enact and toughening their bodies at the same time. But the Doom ringer for me just had more to offer, a prestige class that allows you to have a corpse bonded to you that can suffer your horrible drawbacks for you but gradually makes you more and more reliant of harvesting dead bodies to protect you from your own dark magic? Sign me up!
There’s even a few tricks for traditional casters that let them tweak their magic a bit as a reward for fulfilling quests set out by the GM, and there’s a system for making chaos magic items that, for me at least, is a little too convoluted for it’s own good.
To summarize: This class is for anyone who likes cinematic descriptive combat and having a toolbox full of pieces with which to make a creative solution. It’s a class that can be used alongside the wizards and sorcerers or even as a replacement for traditional magical casting. It is an amazing class and a fascinating system well worth looking over.
Pathfinder conversion information: The rest of this article is only useful if you have the chaos magic book already
Chasis: Apart from the normal skill changes, the only alteration that needs to be made to the basic outline of the class is for Pathfinder the HD should be raised to a D6 which gives more health and thusly more potential spells to use.
Familiar: This ability needs a lot of reworking, assuming that you do want to re-work it and not use the unusual way it is originally presented. Here I present two alternative versions of the familiar, each with their own benefits and each with a different character concept for it to match. Given the importance of this ability I’d recommend granting it at level 1 if using either of the alternative approaches I suggest here, however if using the ability as written then level 8 is at least a reasonable time to grant it.
Option I: Default familiar. The easy method, simply ignore what the book says and just use the familiar as granted to a wizard. The only change I’d recommend making is just replacing the regular benefit it grants the master with one of the Special abilities outline in the special abilities section. This familiar is ideal for players more interested in the raw spellcasting aspects of the class, particularly ones more focused on the power it offers and who plan to downplay or mitigate the class’ drawbacks. It is significantly weaker and simpler than option II in order to keep the focus on the chaos mage rather than their companion.
Option II: Customizable familiar. This option takes much more effort and leads to a much stronger familiar. This is ideal for a chaos mage who plans on being very careful and sparing with their magic, one who has little health, bad luck, or simply fears the chaotic backlash. This option allows the chaos mage to still be effective without resorting to dangerous spellcasting as often. To use this option make the following adjustments to the chaos familiar presented in the book:
HD and HP: The chaos familiar should use the same HD as the master and add it’s own con bonus. This gives it substantial durability but given the limited die size and the penalties suffered for the familiar’s death that is perfectly alright.
Saves: Pick 1 save for the familiar to use the good save progression, the other two use the bad save progression. However I’d recommend keeping the +2 bonus to all saves, again to increase familiar survivability.
Ability scores: Rather than halving str, dex, and con and keeping mental ability scores for the familiar, I’d recommend halving all the creator’s scores, pooling the points and distributing them as desired. This option isn’t really less unsual per se but it does allow you to have a familiar that suits whatever needs you have in mind rather than the traditional approach which is to make a skinnier, frailer creature with your same mental abilities. When the familiar increases in size (5 levels after it is aquired), I would recommend granting it +4 str, +2 con, -2 dex, and +2 natural armor to suit it’s new size and characteristics.
Skills: At level 8, when this ability is acquired the familiar has 30 skills and can go up to 15 ranks. By level 20 this has not changed at all. Getting a familiar at level 8 and having it immediately being better than you in several areas just doesn’t sit well with me, and anyone who appreciates the delicate relationship between intelligence score and skills likewise might chaff at this approach. If one wants to keep things simple and organic I would recommend just giving the familiar 2+int mod skill points per level, this is intentionally different from the traditional familiar which just copies the master’s skills because It promotes having a familiar that is unique and customizable.
Feats: As written the Chaos familiar has just as many feats as the master does, personally I like that a lot and I don’t really have a problem with it since it lends a great deal of customization and versatility.
Special abilities: The chaos familiar should really only get 1 of the abilities listed. If using the Option II chaos familiar it can pick up a new ability using a feat slot. If using the option I chaos familiar then this one ability will fit just right with the power curve. However I’d change the abilities as follows:
- Bolster will: I’d make this ability always active if the familiar is within arms reach. Just to avoid the familiar having to use an action to toggle it on or off.
- Brainburn poison: Remove the 3/day useage, this Poison is not strong enough to bother limiting. Also I’d permit the familiar to add it’s con bonus, if any, to the DC. For pathfinder this poison should change to just 1 int damage per turn for 3 turns, 1 sucessful save negates.
- Breath weapon: To keep this ability relevant I could change the damage to 1d6 per 2 levels and make it useable every 1d4 rounds but keep the range the same. Alternativly If you prefer a much bigger single use ability I’d make it 1d4 per level and bump the cone up to 60 ft. Reflex save DC should also include familiar’s con mod if any.
- Damage division: This ability doesn’t need any change
- Resistance: This is a very unusual ability and very easily exploited. I would recommend having this ability only activate when both Master and familiar must make saves vs the same effect and allow it to work both ways and of course change it to a non-action.
- Spell conduit: This ability is also perfect the way it is
Movement type: The movement speed options presented here work just fine.
Pain of loss: This is entirely personal preference but I would change the -1d8 permanent HP to a permanent -1 on casting checks, this has the same effect of hindering spell useage but is much cleaner.
For Pathfinder GM’s who want to keep the price of this ability existent but don’t want to break the Pathfinder custom of never loosing XP I’d recommend simply calculating the xp that would be lost and the multiply it by 5 and converting it into gold loss. However Gm’s who want to lighten the burden of pushing back chaotic forces can instead choose to waive the XP cost, but I would not recommend doing this if you allow the ability to be used daily. Personally however I recommend a different option. Each time the ability is used apply a non-removable -1 penalty to the chaos mage’s caster level check. This means their magic is more likely to be lethal, giving them an increasing sense of doom and a feeling that they’re loosing control of their magic and it can also have a big impact on caster’s using arcane mastery to try and beat the system.