Continuing with my March Madness theme, I'm taking a look at sub-classes with a madness theme for both the Barbarian and the Monk class. Incidentally, both supplements are from the same author. How did I choose these classes or these sub-classes you ask? I won't bore you with all the details, but I will tell you that the process involved typing in the search term “madness” on the DM's Guild website and then downloading a couple of relevant results. Okay, so it turns out that I will bore you with all of the details. Anyway, let's take a look at what I found and I'll tell you what I think.
I'll start with the “Path of Madness” barbarian path, for alphabetical reasons if nothing else. The premise of this path is that there is a thin line between your garden variety battle frenzy and true madness. Here is how the text describes this line:
“A thin border that every warrior puts [in]great effort not to cross, for beyond that eventhe steadiest of the champions will lose himself,overwhelmed by an insanity not of this world,an insanity not of his own, a primeval force ofmadness whose subtle and unsettling call wecan still hear." - Path of Madness, pg. 2
Ominous stuff indeed! So, what are the mechanical effects of crossing this line? For starters, your insanity grants you immunity to psychic damage while you are in a rage. The assumption here being that since you have just lost your mind, it can't be targeted. Furthermore, your madness fueled attacks are so unsettling that while raging you can use a bonus action to inflict disadvantage on an opponent's attacks until the beginning of your next turn. The drawback to all of this is that when your rage ends you suffer from the effects of confusion, as per the 4th level spell for one minute (ten rounds).
Let's talk a little bit about each of these effects.
Thematically the immunity to psychic damage is fine; I get it, but I think it would have been more interesting to argue the opposite, and say that the barbarian is more susceptible to psychic damage while in a rage (perhaps permanently), as he has voluntarily lowered his defenses against such assaults on his mind to fully embrace madness. I might even take this a step further, giving the character disadvantage on attempts to disbelieve illusions and detect hidden foes, arguing that the character's insanity makes it difficult for him to discern objective reality.
The second effect, imposing disadvantage on foes, again makes some thematic sense but also feels...unsatisfying? Mechanically it is fairly similar - but feels worse than - the benefits granted by the Frenzy and the “Wolf Totem” options from the Player's Handbook, and I'm just not sure that the benefit of being immune to psychic damage is enough of an advantage to make this option worthwhile.
The third effect is suffering from confusion at the end of every rage. Once again I see how in theory this makes thematic sense, but I'm just not a fan. In combats that outlast the barbarian's rage this could be interesting, but most of the time this drawback will lead to ten rounds of post-combat confusion, during which there is an 80% chance nothing interesting happens and a 20% chance that the barbarian attacks his allies a few times. That's just not interesting to me, especially if I'm not playing the barbarian.
At sixth level the barbarian basically gains Mindless Rage, with the added benefit that the barbarian can't be affected by the confusion spell during a rage. This is a bit of a wasted opportunity to add something unique, but otherwise I suppose it's fine.
At later levels the barbarian gains the ability to Contact Other Planes as a ritual or while raging, and eventually he gains the ability to inflict confusion on melee opponents and those who would attempt to read his mind or inflict psychic damage. I like the idea of gaining insight from madness, so I'm fine with Contact Other Planes as a ritual, but not so much while raging. I'd much rather see something like True Seeing or True Strike as way to represent gaining insight from madness during combat. As for the ability to inflict confusion, I certainly think it fits better both mechanically and thematically than the previous use of confusion. Psychic damage and mind reading attempts make great sense as triggers, but I'd also make this a gaze attack instead of tying it to being hit in melee. After all, as the author points out in this somewhat ham-fisted paraphrasing of Nietzsche: “For when they gaze into the abyss of your madness, your madness also gazes into them."
As you can probably tell, I'm not a huge fan of the Path of Madness. While I do think there are some good ideas here, and I like the idea of a warrior who gains strength from madness, this path would need a lot of tweaking before making it to my table. In particular, I'd want to come up with a combat benefit I liked better than imposing disadvantage and I'm really not a fan of the confusion drawback. I'd also like to find a way to incorporate the madness charts from the Dungeon Master's Guide somehow. All of that being said, I still applaud the effort here, and appreciate that this supplement gave me some interesting things to think about.
The second supplement I looked at is the "Monk traditions pack: Way of Mercy, Way of Enlightenment, Way of Madness." I'll just be focusing on the Way of Madness for my purposes, but the supplement is only $0.50, so if either of those other traditions sounds interesting to you or you like what you see on the product page you can pick it up for the price of a cup of coffee, minus the coffee.
Before going into detail, let me just say a couple of things. First, I really like the idea behind this path: that there is a potentially dangerous side to meditation and self enlightenment. Searching for answers from beyond is a well known trope that gets wizards and the like into trouble all of the time, but the same danger is rarely applied to the idea of searching for answers from within. Also, and more so than the Path of Madness for the barbarian, this sub-class is more pervasively and inherently evil. As such, it doesn't fit with what I typically prefer when running games and isn't something that I would normally want a PC to have access too. This is just my preference, and I am aware that other people will have a different opinion. That said, I would absolutely use something like this for an NPC faction, perhaps for members of some splinter sect of the party monk's own path who have lost their way.
At third level the monk gains the ability: "Feed on Their Last Breath." This allows the monk, upon reducing a foe to zero hit points, to spend a point of ki to gain temporary hit points equal to her monk level + wisdom modifer. If the monk is then hit in melee while she still has these temporary hit points, she can use her reaction to deal cold damage to that foe equal to her wisdom modifier.
Wow, that seems extremely powerful to me, especially when compared to the Way of the Open Hand, which allows you to spend a ki point to knock someone down at third level. If I were to use this I think I would tone down the number of hit points gained somehow, or perhaps make the ability recharge ki instead of grant hit points, and I would definitely tie the cold damage to either ki or temporary hit point expenditure.
At higher levels, this path grants you the ability to spend ki to bestow confusion (there's that spell again) on others, cheat death by returning to one hit point when you are reduced to zero, and "Summon the Crawling Darkness" (i.e. Cast Black Tentacles).
Although the apex ability granted by this Way seems a little weak when compared to many other top-tier powers, perphaps this is balanced by the fact that the other abilities granted feel stronger than the norm.
Mechanics aside, I want to stress again that I really like the "flavor text" surrounding this tradition: the idea that the reckless and undisciplined pursuit of self-perfection could lead to contact with the "Far Realm," and the creature of madness that inhabit that place. However, like the Path of Madness for the barbarian, I would have liked to see some tie-in to the madness tables in the DMG, and less of a reliance on the confusion spell to emulate madness.
If I were going to allow the Way of Madness as an option for players, I would do so with the understanding that the rules could be altered based on playtesting results. However, as an NPC option I'd be much less concerned about balance, and more focused on presenting a good challenge to the players.
Overall, there are things I liked and disliked about both of these supplements. And while I wouldn't use either of them "as is," there are some really good ideas here and I applaud the content creator for putting his work out there. If you liked any of the ideas discussed here, then I encourage you to head over to the DM's Guild and take a look at these supplements yourself.