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My curiosity arose after reading When did Warlocks make their first appearance in D&D and how do they differ between editions? by aaron9eee:

A quality answer would have more than just a release date, and would ideally cover what makes each edition's version different from other editions.

When did Artificers make their first appearance in D&D, and how do they differ between editions?

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1996—AD&D 2e, but it wasn’t a separate class

As another answer of mine discusses, the 1996 Player’s Option: Spells & Magic for AD&D 2e introduced “artificer” as a “kit” (kind of like 5e’s subclasses) for the wizard class. The artificer focused on item-improving magic, so that much is similar to the Eberron artificer, but since Eberron itself didn’t exist yet, the 2e artificer was necessarily very different from the one we know today.

The 2e artificer’s big thing was the ability to store spells in items. This meant that they could have vastly more spells available at a time than a regular wizard, but it took a week of solid work to store a single spell in this manner. A potentially-significant benefit of this ability is that stored spells could be released “with a casting time of 1” regardless of the spell’s usual casting time. I’m not super-conversant in 2e, but it seems likely to me that it might be useful to store spells with long casting times so they could be released more quickly than they could ordinarily be cast.

2004—D&D 3.5e, first publication of Eberron, including its iconic artificer

Eberron Campaign Setting was a sourcebook published for D&D 3.5e detailing, shockingly enough, the Eberron campaign setting, which was brand-new at the time. It introduced a new artificer character class to 3.5e, which didn’t have “kits” or anything like them, and hadn’t replicated the artificer option for the wizard class.

The new artificer wasn’t a wizard, and technically didn’t cast spells at all—instead, it cast “infusions,” which are literally identical in every way to spells but technically aren’t. The main things about infusions is that they were neither arcane nor divine (as every true “spell” in 3.5e was) and they could only target items, objects, and/or constructs (though that wasn’t unique; plenty of existing spells shared that property). Its other class features were dedicated to creating and using magic items, including magical construct minions.

The Eberron artificer did replicate the spell storing option of the 2e artificer, though it was perhaps less unique—any spellcaster in 3.5e could easily create scrolls and wands for that purpose. But the artificer was simply better at it than other spellcasters, and on top of that had an infusion for creating a temporary “wand” on short notice.

2009—D&D 4e Eberron update including the artificer

2009’s Eberron Player’s Guide brought Eberron into D&D 4e, including the artificer class. Within 4e, the artificer was a “Leader” class, meaning it focused on buffs and healing. Its special trick was that its healing could be handed out to other characters ahead of time, which could trigger them on their own without the artificer’s involvement. This is again perhaps reminiscent of the 2e specialty of storing spells.

Aside from that, the 4e artificer was explicitly an arcane class, and therefore cast spells—no non-arcane, non-divine “infusions” here (though its healing ability was “Healing Infusion”). It also retained some ability with magic items—being able to restore their daily powers or empower them—and also knew some magic-item-creating rituals by default.

2019—D&D 5e Eberron update including the artificer

A decade later, Eberron: Rising from the Last War brings Eberron and the artificer to D&D 5e. A similar repertoire of item-improving spells as previous artificers are on display, and “infusions” are now special artificer-only features that allow them to create specific magic items, including some unique ones that aren’t otherwise available. The 5e artificer is in a somewhat awkward place as there aren’t any core 5e rules for creating magic items, but the infusion system is a pretty solid approach to handling it.

Note that, prior to Eberron: Rising from the Last War, numerous “artificers” were tested for 5e as Unearthed Arcana content. We have a question about that history, if you desire details.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Describing the finalised version of the 5e artificer as a "pet class" isn't quite accurate, one of the subclasses do get a "pet", another can summon some (expending resources to do it and can summon multiple at higher levels) and the third doesn't get a pet at all. The description as given matches one of the playtest versions much better (self-promotary more detail here). \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Mar 9 at 23:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil Missed that they’d changed the alchemist to ease off on the homunculus, but the turret really is pretty minion-like. But ya know what, I’ve been meaning to actually buy Eberron: Rising from the Last War for a while and this seems like a good opportunity to do it. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 9 at 23:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not vital to the answer, but I think prestige classes would qualify as an equivalent to kits and sub-classes, as they allowed specialisation and modification of base classes and often had class prerequisites? Off the top of my head I can’t think of an official prestige class that resembled the artificer, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Guybrush McKenzie Mar 10 at 7:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ While there are still some comments open for refinement and clarification, I think it is already clear that this is an excellent answer, so I have no qualms to accept it. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Mar 10 at 10:03
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Artificers first appeared in the Eberron Campaign Setting in June of 2004, a follow-up to 2003's revised 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons ("v.3.5"). They were a class focused on the edition's unique player-accessible magic item creation and some quick emulation of those mechanics, and augmenting teammates by enhancing their equipment; they held a strong focus on the Charisma-based 'Use Magic Device' skill to manipulate the canned spells in wands and staves, as well as their Intelligence-based infusions (pseudo-spells) acquired at a rate somewhere between a sorcerer and a bard in level progression, some of which were just reproducing actual spell effects (some minor war magic suiting their role in the Last War that defines Khorvaire, the central continent of Eberron), while others were wholly original, and the infusions tended to be centered around interacting with magic items and constructs such as warforged.

In the 4th edition of D&D, artificers likewise appeared in the Eberron Player's Guide in June of 2009, this time using Intelligence as their primary attack ability and Wisdom and Constitution as secondary abilities, adjusting the efficacy of secondary effects like healing or the bonuses granted to teammates by their arcane powers. Their role shifted from "knock-off wizard" to Leader, which meant their powers usually helped teammates with bonuses and healing, alongside dealing attack damage; rods, staffs, and wands served to focus their magical attacks, while they gained special ability to recharge magic items' daily powers. The class also had access to summoning, a luxury few other classes had. In terms of advancement, non-psionic classes (plus the monk) tended to have a unified progression scheme in 4e, with "spells" simply being arcane powers, as opposed to divine "prayers", martial "exploits", primal "evocations", and psionic "disciplines".

With the 5th edition release of Eberron: Rising from the Last War in November of 2019 (and the update to Keith Baker's licensed Wayfinder's Guide to Eberron), artificers now use actual worker's or thieves' tools to cast spells based on Intelligence, at a rate not unlike a paladin (plus cantrips), with a strong focus on utility to complement the normal combat enhancement.

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