The “Vow of Poverty” feat from the Book of Exalted Deeds makes it feasible to play a character without magic items or equipment. In theory, at least – unless you’re a monk or cleric, you actually rely quite heavily on one or more items, such as a wizard’s spellbook. In this article I’m going to try and explain the best way to handle these characters who don’t use equipment.
There’s a general consensus among the online Dungeons & Dragons community that the Book of Exalted Deeds (BoED) was, for the most part, an underwhelming addition to the game. In my own opinion, it had some very usable material but much of the content felt like the book had been created as an overly exact counterpart to the much better Book of Vile Darkness (BoVD). Where BoVD invented poisons, BoED copied them but called them “ravages” because only evil people poison. Where BoVD statted up some fantastic demon princes, devil lords and beautifully lethal monsters, BoED gave us furries and naked people.
Among BoED’s better content was the occasionally controversial Vow of Poverty. The idea is that by sacrificing magic items or expensive gear of any kind, your character gains numerous inherent abilities to compensate.
Is it broken?
Several DMs have prohibited Vow of Poverty due to the massive amounts of abilities granted by a single feat, which include damage reduction, armor class bonuses and even several free feats. At very least it’s far more powerful than any other feat, and gives more abilities than even some character classes. This raises the question, is it inherently broken?
The answer is no – at least, not too badly. We take it for granted, but the amount of power characters usually gain from equipment and magic items is astounding. At twentieth level, your character has the equivalent of 760,000 gp in magic items. Less than one third of that will get you +6 to every single ability score. Throw in a suit of +5 heavy fortification armor, a +5 vorpal sword, +5 animated shield and a Tome to put your Strength up permanently by five points, and you’re still about 35k under budget. Consider also the potions, helpful ability-granting items, high-powered weapons and various armour/weapon enhancements you can own. Don’t take magic items for granted – this is what you’re giving up with Vow of Poverty.
So how do I use it with my class?
Barbarian: The first and most important thing you give up as an ascetic barbarian is armor. It’s not such a big loss since you don’t have heavy armor proficiency so you only lose up to breastplate, and by level 3 your VoP armor bonus matches that – higher, if you had a particularly high Dexterity. Losing shield use is irrelevant as long as your fighting style is two-handed, two-weapon or ranged. You’re definitely going to miss martial weapons, so you can go two-handed with a spear (1d8 x3) or two-weapon style with a quarterstaff (1d6/1d6) – in any case you’re basically limit to heavy sticks and pointy sticks. If your DM allows variants you can play a ranged barbarian who uses the Rapid Reload feat with a light crossbow – permissible, because you can carry simple weapons.
Bard: A bard is relatively easy to make Vow of Poverty, perhaps as a wandering preacher or orator whose speeches and hymns inspire the populace. A bard who sings rather than plays an instrument, relies on no items at all. He only loses the use of light armour, which the VoP armor bonus makes up for from level 1, and it’s not too much of a step down for him to use simple weapons. There’s a particularly fitting Divine Bard variant, if your DM allows.
Cleric: Technically, a cleric who has taken a Vow of Poverty can’t even own a holy symbol, which prevents him from turning undead or even using a sizeable number of his own spells. It’s a ridiculous situation that even the official FAQ can’t solve (between you and me, I think Andy Collins won’t admit it when something flat-out won’t work). Fortunately, some clever thinking gets around this limitation. Your cleric might have a holy symbol tattooed on his hand as a permanent symbol of faith, or he might have whittled one himself out of wood or stone. The lack of heavy armour and shields is a big loss until later levels when your armor bonus improves, but spells like greater magic vestment can mitigate this to some extent.
Druid: The druid fits Vow of Poverty extremely well – almost too well. One particularly powerful character build sees a high level druid walk around all day in the form of a Celestial Triceratops thanks to the Exalted Wild Shape feat, casting spells even in triceratops form with the Natural Spell Feat. A druid relies very little on armour and weapons.
Fighter: The fighter is hit hard by Vow of Poverty because he typically relies so heavily on full plate armor and either shields or greatswords. The best solution to this is to avoid playing a “heavy” fighter, instead going the two-weapon fighter route with a quarterstaff and putting a higher ability score into Dexterity.
Monk: The monk is perhaps the best class for Vow of Poverty, or at least it’s the one class most people associate with non-reliance on equipment. Absolutely no changes need to be made.
Paladin: A paladin’s special mount doesn’t count as property, making him the only mounted combatant who can use Vow of Poverty. However, he has all of the drawbacks of the fighter and cleric, since he can’t own armor, shields, martial weapons or (without some creativity) a holy symbol. You might take the opportunity to offset your lower armor class by making the longspear your primary weapon in order to have greater reach, while specialising almost entirely in mounted combat using the longspear. Alternatively you can go two-weapon with the quarterstaff or ranged with the crossbow, as described in the barbarian section. In that case, you may be more effective by playing a ranger with favoured enemies such as Outsider (evil) and Undead.
Ranger: Light armour and no shields means you’re not missing much in the way of defence, but the ranger’s combat style typically relies heavily on weapons. The simple solution to this is to wield a quarterstaff if you’ve picked two-weapon combat as your style, or a light crossbow with the Rapid Reload feat if you’ve chosen archery – crossbows are simple weapons, so you’re allowed one. A drawback of archery style is that you don’t get to make use of the free Manyshot feat. Outsider (evil) and Undead are likely to be your first favoured enemies.
Rogue: The rogue is in the same boat as the ranger, above. The +4 armor bonus at level 1 is as good as chain shirt armour but with none of the armor check penalty to Move Silently. Since you want to play the rogue as a two-weapon fighter to get as many sneak attacks as possible, a quarterstaff is your best weapon.
Sorcerer: The sorcerer relies on no items in particular, and the +4 armor bonus granted by Vow of Poverty at first level means that he doesn’t have to spend a valuable “spells known” slot on Mage Armor. You are permitted a spell component pouch, but remember not to take any spells with a costly material requirement, since you’ll either waste a lot of XP casting them or never use them at all (a waste of a “spells known” slot). Remember also that you can’t use a scroll, wand or staff.
Wizard: Similar to the sorcerer, with one notable exception. By the standard rules, a wizard is impossible to play since he requires an expensive spell book. Having the group’s fighter technically own your spellbook is almost a ridiculous a situation as the cleric who whittles his holy symbol out of a bar of soap each morning. Again, this is where some creative thinking comes to the rescue. Simply have the wizard keep his spellbook in the form of tattoes on his body. This means you need to think long and hard on which spells you want, since you don’t have the luxury of keeping a main spellbook separate to your travelling spellbook. The inability to use scrolls is a notable drawback to the wizard, since a good wizard always keeps a stock of scrolls for emergencies. The easiest solution may be to play a sorcerer instead!
Psionic classes: With the exception of psychic warrior, none of the basic psionic classes really rely on items. If playing a psion, you may need to check with your DM before he will let you take a psicrystal, since it might be construed as equipment. The psychic warrior may be slightly weaker if he can only use simple weapons; as usual, specialising in two-weapon combat is the way to offset this limit.
Prestige classes: Take care before planning to enter any prestige classes which may require specific equipment or gold. Guildmage, for example, has an entry fee in gold pieces and requires the character to carry an expensive token at all times. Vassal of Bahamut requires specific armour, and a duelist is a lot weaker if you can’t wield a rapier. (In a related anecdote, I’ve been in a game where one player decided to play a duelist who dual-wielded longswords, which is about as effective as a monk who tries to wield a greatclub.)
In short, vow of poverty can