"So art lies hid by its own artifice" - an artificer guide
We have recently had the new artificer version released as Unearthed Arcana for 5th edition. This is the closest we've had to a finished class for the artificer, and so I thought it time for a guide! If/when the current version is updated further, for inclusion in the Wayfarer's Guide to Eberron (WGtE), I will update this guide accordingly.
This is still currently a WIP; comments, corrections and suggestions are all welcomed.
2. Class features
3. Race options
4. Proficiencies & backgrounds
Goldenrod = amazing, almost compulsory.
Turquoise = grade A, often an optimal choice.
Blue = grade B, a solid option.
Black = grade C, a pass mark, but not great.
Purple = situational, usually sub-optimal but can occasionally shine.
Red = probably a poor choice, weaker or less synergistic than other options.
NOTE: in the end this is an RPG, and the most fun is had by playing cool ideas and trying things out. The ratings I give are my subjective opinions on the efficacy, primarily in mechanical terms, of different options. The colours allow an 'at-a-glance' view. Please do not let them stop you playing your planned character idea. This is particularly so in 5e, where no matter which options you pick you are unlikely to find the end result unplayable. You do you.
Strength: unless you find yourself the front-line fighter of an unorthodox party, you don't need much here. It's perfectly possible to make an artificer with strength as a primary attack stat, but dexterity has a lot more going for it.
Dexterity: for most artificers, this is your primary stat, not intelligence. Intelligence is to most artificers as charisma is to paladins - extremely important, but it's not your primary attack stat. Dexterity also assists with things like Thieves Tools and a host of useful skills. For a Battle Smith it is still great but not primary.
Constitution: we all like hit points.
Intelligence: your spellcasting stat, while also affecting your specialism abilities - you want a reasonable score here. For the Battle Smith, and for some builds of the Archivist or Artillerist, this is the primary stat.
Wisdom: a useful skill stat, with the ubiquitous Perception, as well as being a common save to make.
Charisma: much like Wisdom, except there are probably much better people to be the party face. This might change if you're playing a dragonmarked character in Eberron - you'll garner attention so it's useful to be able to do some of the talking!
2. Class features
Magical Tinkering: this is effectively extra cantrip effects, but the indefinite duration is worth noting.
Spellcasting: it's good to see the artificer back as a half-caster. You have a delightfully characterful method for preparing new spells (modifying your spell focuses) and some great spells, but remember that you have very limited spell slots so make them count! One point you might not notice on first reading is that the artificer can swap out cantrips as they level up. Your GM might allow you to do this already, but RAW other casters cannot.
A note on Arcane Weapon
I'll go through the spell list as a whole in due course, but it's worth mentioning the new spell here. Arcane weapon is the hunter's mark or hex for the artificer. It's a great damage boost which efficiently makes use of a single spell slot for a whole encounter. It's particularly good in combination with your 5th-level extra attack feature.
Infuse item: what would an artificer be without creating magic items? Again I'll go through the individual infusions later on.
Artificer Specialist: we originally only had two specialisms, the Alchemist and the Artillerist. The Archivist and Battle Smith have been added to those, and the four give a good set of choices.
Tool Expertise: good old expertise. Tools are typically narrower in application than skills, but you have quite a few tool proficiencies to apply it to. Disarming traps will probably be the most frequent use.
Arcane Armament: this, along with arcane weapon, is why the artificer is really a Dex-primary rather than Int-primary class. You'll probably be using a crossbow as your primary weapon until now, but the loading property is a problem here. The Crossbow Expert feat can fix this – as can Repeating Shot, now it's been added as an infusion – otherwise obtaining proficiency with longbows is a good idea. Barring that, you may have to downgrade to a shortbow to get that extra attack at range.
The Right Cantrip for the Job: a neat bit of flexibility here.
Spell-Storing Item: an interesting variant on the wizard's Spell Mastery. Note that the item can be used by anyone and uses your spellcasting modifier, so hand it to that 1st-level NPC and save the party's actions for greater things.
Soul of Artifice: I'm not usually that interested in capstone abilities, as you're so rarely at the level to be using them, but this is nice enough!
3. Race options
PHB - core
Hill Dwarf: not that great. Neither Dex nor Int, though the base Con bonus isn't bad for any class. Darkvision is always good. In Eberron you'd much prefer a dragonmarked dwarf however.
Mountain Dwarf: Worse than hill dwarf, most of the time. Unless you're building a strength-based artificer, leave this alone. The armour training is wasted either way, as you get those proficiencies as part of the class.
High Elf: not bad at all! One of the best races stat-wise. Longbow proficiency is great come level 5, as is shortsword for your melee finesse weapon. Add darkvision, keen senses, trance, and you can't go wrong.
Wood Elf: not quite as perfect as high elf, and a bit of an odd one flavour-wise. But if it's what you envisage for your character, the base elf stats are solid enough to make it work.
Dark Elf: rapier proficiency is great, but compared to the other elves, it's just not worth the sunlight sensitivity. Better in an underdark/Ravenloft campaign.
Lightfoot Halfling: both halfling subraces are appropriate, with a Dex boost and Lucky. Remember that the small size rules out heavy crossbows.
Stout Halfling: Con is better than Cha, but generally much the same.
Human: a uniform stat boost is uninteresting, but obviously workable.
Variant Human: if you want a feat, then this is the place to go. Artificers aren't feat-dependant, but there are lots of nice options. Crossbow Expert becomes worthy from level 5, and while it would be an underwhelming start it allows an ASI at level 4.
PHB - alternate
Dragonborn: not the typical artificer, with boosts to Str and Cha. The breath weapon is a nice feature but there is little else going for the race mechanically.
Forest Gnome: weirdly the better gnome subclass, given the Dex boost.
Rock Gnome: they're both good though.
Half-Elf: you're better off fully elf or fully human, Cha isn't your thing. But you do at least get darkvision, and can pick +1/+1 to Dex and Int.
Half-Orc: much like mountain dwarf, unless you're building a strength-based character this isn't much help. At least there's no wasted ability alongside the strength boost.
Tiefling: Int and darkvision, but Cha isn't much use. Not a great choice unless you're the party face.
WGtE - Eberron races
Changeling: +2 Cha isn't a great start for most artificers, but your choice of Dex or Int is a good secondary. The main thing about this race is the Change Appearance ability, which can be of great use, and combined with Divergent Persona is the basis for some excellent character-building.
Kalashtar: similar to the Changeling, this has sub-optimal compulsory stat increases along with an interesting core ability (Mind Link). Choose if you wish.
Shifter: the base class has a Dex boost, darkvision, and the perception skill, all of which are excellent. The subraces are mixed: beasthide or swiftstride shifters are probably the best choices, with neither longtooth or wildhunt being synergistic with your class.
Warforged: some really solid base abilities here. The envoy and skirmisher subraces make excellent artificers in terms of total stats, whereas the strength bonus from the juggernaut is probably not of use to you.
WGtE - dragonmarked race variants
Mostly if selecting one of these race variants you'll have a story-based reason for doing so. But in terms of the stats, some are obviously better than others.
Mark of Detection: much like the original half-elf, as far as the artificer is concerned.
Mark of Finding: not much better than the original half-orc.
Mark of Handling: you have Dex and a stat of your choice, which can be double Dex or Dex/Int, so it can't be that bad - but unless you really like animals, the variant human is probably better.
Mark of Healing: as per the normal halfling; a solid base with an unexceptional addition.
Mark of Hospitality: as above.
Mark of Making: here we go - a premium artificer race for House Cannith, which is known for its artificers. Magecraft becomes a bit redundant come level 10, but before that it's great. Spellsmith is another excellent way to turn on Arcane Armament, or assist another ally.
Mark of Passage: not the archetypal artificer house, but an excellent set of abilities.
Mark of Scribing: these aren't your typical gnomes, and your typical gnomes are better are being an artificer than these are.
Mark of Sentinel: pass.
Mark of Shadow: high elf is much better, but the elf base remains a good starting point. Lack of any bonus weapon proficiency makes it worse than wood elf too, and unless you're the party face it doesn't add anything of substance.
Mark of Storm: given you can get +2 Dex, it's probably the best half-elf subrace for the artificer. Perhaps appropriate, given they would need to maintain their airships when away from the help of Zilargo or House Cannith.
Mark of Warding: this, thankfully, fulfils the spot of the dwarven artificer. I remember thinking this when the WGtE was released, and it holds true with the latest artificer incarnation.
Volo's Guide to Monsters
Aasimar: much like dragonborn, the Aasimar have an interesting single-use effect, but do not have the best stat increases for a typical artificer build.
Firbolg: similarly, some interesting features but poor stat increases. As-written, they are also unlikely to be artificers story-wise, but don't let this stop you if you have an appropriate character idea!
Goliath: similar use to the hill dwarf, but without darkvision. At least you can fix that with goggles. If you want to make a strength-based artificer, then it will work.
Kenku: the main decision as to playing a kenku will be whether you're willing to role-play the Mimicry trait. As far as the artificer goes, the +2 Dex is solid.
Lizardfolk: if your campaign is set in the wilderness then Cunning Artisan is a way of getting targets for your infusions at a pinch, I suppose. +2 Con is ok for most classes, and the proficiencies and Natural Armour don't hurt. It's a shame that the bite attack is via strength.
Tabaxi: it's a +2 Dex race with ok, if not astounding features.
Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes
Eladrin: once again, the elf base is great. While not as tailored to the artificer as the high elf, Fey Step is simply a wonderful ability. If the +1 Cha were something more useful I'd rate the race as gold.
Sea Elf: +1 Con is a good addition to the Dex. The weapon proficiencies here are worse than high/wood elves; trident would be an interesting thrown option, but it's not finesse and as an elf you're definitely better at the standard Dex build. Obviously better in a sea-based campaign.
Shadar-Kai: like Fey Step, you have a bonus action teleportation (with a minor bonus at level 3) which is just amazing. +1 Con is better than +1 Cha. The reason this isn't gold? Your teleportation is every long rest, instead of short rest as per the Eladrin.
Duergar: much like the drow, this is better in an underdark/Ravenloft campaign, but the dwarf base is worse than an elf for most artificers.
Githyanki: strength and intelligence is a rare combination, which makes it perfect if you're building a strength-based artificer - and you also get appropriate weapon proficiencies to go with that.
Githzerai: wisdom and intelligence is also a rare combination, but not the best one for you. I'm just about rating it purple because of the Int bonus.
Deep Gnome: unlike the other 'deep' races, deep gnomes do not have Sunlight Sensitivity! The gnome base is excellent, +1 Dex is good and increased darkvision is probably better than the forest gnome bonuses. Amazing in an underdark campaign.
4. Proficiencies & backgrounds
Armour & weapons
Medium armour + shields is enough, you're likely dexterity based anyway. It's a shame that hand crossbows and heavy crossbows are your only martial weapons.
Predictably you get a good set of tool proficiencies. Thieves' tools will be exceptionally useful, and much like a rogue the artificer makes an excellent 'trap-detector' role. Tinker's tools are probably more fluff than use, as is your choice of artisan's tools. Pick your free tool choice carefully with your spellcasting in mind - how do you imagine creating the focuses for your spells?
Proficiency in constitution and intelligence saving throws. Like most classes you get one primary save (Dex, Con, Wis; roughly corresponding to Reflex, Fortitude and Will from previous editions) and one secondary save (Str, Int, Cha). Constitution is amazing as a primary save for a caster, because you'll have a concentration spell up most of the time and keeping it up is very useful.
Arcana: part and parcel of your role as a magical 'scientist', it's hard to imagine an artificer without this skill.
History: you likely have a good intelligence stat so you're as good as any at this skill, but it's unlikely to be a priority.
Investigation: you have good intelligence and this is a generally useful skill.
Medicine: if you choose spare the dying as a cantrip, then you don't need this. Otherwise it can be useful when magical healing is sparse.
Nature: another intelligence skill, but not one you're likely to prioritise.
Perception: practically gold. This is an extremely useful skill for anyone, but particularly if your job is to sort traps for the party. Your wisdom score is unlikely to be exceptional, so having proficiency really helps.
Sleight of Hand: you have a high dexterity score, so you'll be good at this. Whether you want to be is a matter for you.
Athletics: you generally want this or acrobatics if you can. Since you're likely to be primary in dexterity, choose the other one.
Acrobatics: as athletics, but this time tied to your attack stat. Escape grapples with ease.
Stealth: a dexterity-based skill which is useful to have across the party.
Religion: much like history and nature, you'll be good at this, but you don't have many skill choices so probably have better things to pick.
Animal handling: leave it to the ranger - only one person in the party really needs this.
Insight: a useful skill to have on multiple characters, it's the social version of perception. How useful this is in practice depends somewhat on how your GM deals with social encounters.
Survival: see animal handling.
Deception: probably the most useful social skill for someone who isn't focussing on them, because if someone is caught out in a lie then the whole group might be. Still, there are better options for you.
Intimidation: having this or persuasion can't hurt, but you're not the best party face.
Performance: charisma is likely a low stat for you, and it is not an essential skill.
Persuasion: a mirror to intimidation.
DISCLAIMER: I personally believe that backgrounds should be selected primarily based on how you imagine your character's history, not on which option is most mechanically effective. Furthermore, the vast majority of GMs will let you modify a background or create a completely new one to fit your character idea. Be creative!
For this reason I'm putting background ratings under a spoiler. Feel free to ignore.
Acolyte: extra languages aren't bad (potentially excellent, depending on your campaign), but the skill choices are definitely suboptimal.
Charlatan: you end up with a wide spread of tool proficiencies, probably more than you need. The skills are ok but not exceptional.
Criminal: thieves' tools duplicates with artificer, which makes it a 'wildcard' tool proficiency. Quite which tool set you want proficiency in over and above the artificer choices is unclear... this ends up being very similar to charlatan for you. The feature can be exceptional or a waste depending on how your GM plays it.
Entertainer: acrobatics is a great skill which you can't get through your class (or any other printed background so far, save through a wildcard duplication), but performance and a musical instrument are unlikely to be paired with a good enough charisma stat for most artificers.
Folk hero: a poor selection of skills and tool proficiencies for you.
Guild artisan: two social skills makes this more appropriate for a party face, and the artisan's tools is duplicative. [NB if you're running an Eberron campaign, there are a number of variants on this for the dragonmarked houses which fit rather better.]
Hermit: similar in utility to the acolyte. The Alchemist gets proficiency in the herbalism kit at level 3, so treat that as a wildcard tool proficiency - which you probably don't need.
Noble: history is a narrow skill but at least you're good at it. Another ok social skill.
Outlander: similar to the folk hero, not a great choice.
Sage: now this is quite appropriate. History again, which isn't amazing, but does suit your stat block. Arcana is a great skill and taking it via background enables you to select a different class skill. Two extra languages can't hurt, though how useful this is will depend on the campaign.
Sailor: perception is amazing, but athletics is sub-par unless you've created an odd strength build.
Soldier: another outlander in effect.
Urchin: two dexterity skills, but two tools is probably unnecessary, even including the wildcard.
House agent: slightly better than the guild artisan as investigation is good for you, but two tool sets is even more duplicative. You might speak to your DM about swapping the skills depending on which House you are part of.
City watch: similar to the soldier, though two languages are probably more useful than tools (campaign depending). Insight may or may not be better then intimidation for you.
Clan crafter: history is Int-based, and insight is ok. Again, a tool proficiency is duplicative.
Cloistered scholar: this is basically the sage is a different cloak. An excellent choice.
Courtier: two social skills, two languages. If you're somehow the party face then great, otherwise not exceptional.
Faction agent: very flexible depending on the faction-specific proficiency. It can be similar to sage again, except insight rather than history.
Far traveller: perception is great, insight is ok, and a language can't hurt. The tool proficiency is mostly flavour.
Inheritor: the compulsory survival isn't great for you, but you can take arcana which is a key skill for you. Sage or scholar is generally better.
Knight of the Order: as per inheritor, but with persuasion instead of survival. Take your pick.
Mercenary veteran: athletics and persuasion? Pass.
Urban bounty hunter: stealth and a social skill, of which insight is likely best. Again the duplicative tool proficiencies; remember that thieves' tools is a wildcard for you.
Uthgardt tribe member: this time it's the outlander in a different cloak. Not that useful.
Waterdhavian noble: and again with the noble. Nothing new here.[/sblock]
Alchemist spells: some useful crowd-control from the 2nd-level spells onwards. Most of your core spells are utility based, to combine with individual magic weapon attacks. Area combat spells such as web and stinking cloud give much-appreciated versatility. Shame the spells gained at level 3 are so uninteresting.
Alchemical Homunculus: it's great to see this increase in HP, unlike the 5e familiar! Ditto proficiency. Commanding the homunculus is an excellent use of your bonus action after having used arcane weapon on the first turn of combat, for a crossbow user. All three Alchemical Salves look useful in different circumstances.
Alchemical Mastery: the free casting of lesser restoration seems the most interesting part to me. You don't have many spell slots, but adding 2x your Int mod to a cure wounds roll is also very nice.
On careful reading, note that this also applies to arcane weapon when you choose acid or poison damage. You use a spellcasting focus for every spell, regardless of whether they require a material component, so you can still use your alchemist's supplies to cast arcane weapon despite it only having verbal and somatic components.
Chemical Savant: again, greater restoration is pretty cool, but otherwise this is mostly fluff at this level.
Archivist Spells: comprehend languages may be niche but at least it is a ritual. The list is generally a mixture of situational utility spells and a couple of knock-out combat options (dissonant whispers, hypnotic pattern).
Artificial Mind: creating your own mini sentient weapon or other item seems like a great RP opportunity! The flexibility in skill proficiency provided here is simply excellent. It is not just two extra skills, but two extra skills that can be exchanged every long rest. Manifest Mind is slightly stranger RP-wise, but continues the bonus-action pet theme amongst these archetypes. Information Overload is effectively an attack cantrip substitute, but unless you are primary-Int or you need to enable a rogue's sneak attack, attacking with an Arcane Weapon is probably better. The smite-esque ability can be useful, but much like the Paladin you don't have all that many spell slots at this point – something which changes come level 5.
Mind Network: the bonus to psychic damage is nice, in particular turning your Mind's Information Overload into an excellent cantrip-substitute.
Pure Information: Mind Overload makes using spell slots to 'smite' a lot more interesting, and by this level you have enough slots to burn some at least. Teleportation is always nice.
Artillerist Spells: damage-dealing spells abound (plus the excellent shield), but with so few spell slots it's the fact that so many are area-effect spells (or walls) that makes these so good. A great complement to the spells already on your list.
Arcane Turret: an artificer creating a turret makes sense, but 'summoning' it with an action just seems... odd. Mechanically it's a more offensive version of the homunculus, giving you an excellent way to use your bonus action in combat but without the out-of-combat utility. I may have undervalued this due to flavour - so shoot me (with a turret).
Wand Prototype: if you want to create a primary-Int artificer, this is your substitute for Arcane Armament. It also gives you some additional flexibility prior to level 10. This can be great, but I'm marking it purple as it's situational and/or build-dependant.
Fortified position: I still find the magically-summoned turrets a bit weird, but this is undeniably a powerful effect.
The Battle Smith
Battle Smith Spells: lots of concentration required unfortunately. I find this the least inspiring of the spell lists, but it is still extra spells.
Battle Ready: this is what makes you an extremely solid primary-Int character. Apply Arcane Weapon to a martial weapon and enjoy.
Iron Defender: and here is the pet, but a traditional one this time! Very happy to see the Iron Defender return. The combination of bonus action attacks and Defensive Pounce is very solid.
Arcane Jolt: the healing option on this makes your Defender's attack useful in more situations, acting a bit like a repeatable healing word. Note that it applies to your own magical attacks too, not just your pet's, which makes this much more consistent and a really strong ability.
Improved Defender: not particularly game-changing, but any healing/damage buff is useful.