The Dragon is the most iconic figure in the pantheon of D&D lore, so it makes sense that there are numerous classes, prestige classes, items, spells, etc… that all incorporate this mightiest of creatures into their flavor. From the Players Handbook II comes the somewhat bizarre, but sort of cool Dragon Shaman. At this point I would love to be able to sum it up in a sentence and say what it does, but really this class is all over the place. It has such a varied skill set that I hesitate to classify it as anything other than a non caster, since it has no spells I can safely say it does not fill that role. But what does it do? Well, it sort of fights, has some healing ability, can buff the party, and some other strange little tricks. And a breath weapon. And can fly (granted, at 19th level).
I guess the best place to start are with the vitals of the class. Base Attack as a rogue, two good saves (Fort and Will), and d10 Hit Die. I am pretty sure that it is the only class in the game with a d10 that does not have full Base Attack, and that sort of sends mixed signals. However, it also means that they can survive on the front lines, they just don’t necessarily have to be fighting things. The Shaman can wear up to medium armor and shields, which only adds to their survivability. Then again they are limited to simple weapons so they probably won’t be doing much damage. Honestly, I think it is sort of a interesting mixture of traits. The worst part, however, is the 2+ skill points. As a jack of some trades they should really have some skill points to throw around. And they just don’t really have any. Their class skills are pretty weak, but they do get additional ones based on the color of their dragon totem (see below).
It is said that some classes, like monks and rangers, are MAD (multiple attribute dependent). Dragons Shamans might be the only class that is NAD (no attribute dependent). What does the highest roll go into? I have no idea. They get a breath weapon with a CON based save, and some CHA based healing. Other than that it is sort of up in the air. STR seems like a waste since they are going to be pretty limited in combat due to the BAB and weapon selection. I think I would go CON for the hit points, or maybe DEX for AC and Reflex. I could actually see any stat other than WIS. In a way it’s sort of cool that the attribute selection for the class is so wide open, it allows for a pretty large range of shamanic types, which I like.
The signature ability for the class is the Draconic Aura, which is essentially a field of energy in a 30’ radius around the shaman that affects them and all allies. Shamans know a bunch of these (by 9th level they have learned all 7 of the auras), they can only have one active at a time but switching to a new one is a swift action. I’m not sure what this has to do with dragons but some of them are pretty good. The bonus for the aura begins at +1 and increases by +1 at 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th (when it becomes +5). Some of them give the appropriate bonus to damage, some DR or energy resistance, some social skills. I think that the best one might be Vigor, which provides fast healing but only affects characters at less than half their total. That is actually really useful for the post battle cleanup and lets the cleric save cures for an emergency. As long as you survive a battle you are going to wind up with half your HP. Not bad. And since the range of the aura is 30’ I see why it is important that they can hang with the meleers in the front, since they will benefit the most from most of the auras. Since it is dragon based it would be neat if there was a fear effect aura.
The other 1st level ability is the choosing of a totem dragon. The color dragon is chosen at this point and figures into some abilities later on, such as the type of breath weapon and some other stuff. They also get a couple of extra class skills, too bad they have virtually no points to spend on them. The skills are reflective of the nature of the dragon (i.e. red dragons gets appraise, bluff, and jump. Are red dragons known for jumping? I have no idea. I thought they flew). Later on the shaman is also given a skill focus in each of those skills (at 2nd, 8th, and 16th level). At third level they also get an ability based on their dragon color. Some are cool, like the bronze dragon’s water breathing at will. Some are not, such as the white dragons ability to walk across icy surfaces without making a balance check.
At 4th level comes the breath weapon, which is the most draconic thing that happens to this class. Unfortunately it is just not very good. 2d6 damage, plus 1d6 every two level. Con based Reflex save for half, usable once every 1d4 rounds. Cooler than it is effective. The idea of being able to spit acid at someone is pretty rad and is sort of a good way to start off a combat, especially when negotiations break down.
Touch of Vitality is the 6th level ability and will further endear the Shaman to his fellow party members, especially the ones frustrated with his lack of useful combat abilities. Each day they can heal twice their level x CHA bonus of hit points. 10th level shaman with a 14 Cha can heal 40 points a day. Once 11th level is reached they can also spend healing points to cure ability damage, negative levels, and other conditions. Combined with the Vigor aura this actually makes the Shaman a pretty good healer.
As they progress in levels they do not get many new abilities, mainly just a scaling up of the ones that they already possess. Some AC bonus, wings at 19th level, some energy resistance, and the ability to cast Commune once a week. Mediocre. I would like to see something at higher levels that allowed the Shaman to have more than one aura at any given time, that would make a huge difference at higher levels when the class seems to be pretty overshadowed by most others in terms of damage and overall usefulness.
All in all I don’t think the Dragon Shaman is horrible and there is certainly a place for them in a party, as a second fighter with some support abilities they should be okay. Give them Improved Trip and a reach weapon and stick them behind the fighter and they can make some contributions.