WoTC released some new Unearthed Arcana content on 8/5/20. I love the concept of D&D, but the 5e team really makes it hard to like the product. These subclasses are no exception. I know they hide behind the “its playtest don’t criticize us” banner a lot, but that’s BS. The point of a playtest is to get something criticized so you can fix it. These two subclasses in particular need a lot of help. One has an OK theme, and terrible mechanics, and the other has an OK theme and decent mechanics.
The Bardic College of Spirits
They clearly put a lot of effort into this class, and the TLDR for the my review of it that its representative of clunky mechanics I’d expect from a first time homebrewer, and not well the industry leader. I envision someone staying up all night for weeks adjusting math over and over again, trying to make it work. They needed someone to step in and say “This is bad, start over” before too much time got invested.
Guiding Whispers: The level 3 ability gives you the guidance cantrip for free with a 60ft range instead of touch. That’s a really good cantrip mechanically, but bad for the game, and probably one they should stop referencing and just sort of pretend they didn’t publish so people forget about it. In practice it basically means that if your friend is making an out of combat ability check, they always get +1d4. Its both boring and way better than other cantrips.
Spiritual Focus: At 3rd level you can use candles, crystal balls, talking boards, tarokka decks, or skulls for your focus. This is kind of an “I don’t care at all” feature for most players, and many DMs are probably letting their players do this anyway if they do care. At 6th level though, it gets over complicated with minimal benefit. When you cast a bard spell that damages or heals, using your new focus, roll a d6. You can add a bonus to one roll’s amount healed or damaged. When casting a spell, I need to …
- Check if its a bard spell.
- Check if I’m using my focus
- Note if it heals or damages.
- Roll an extra die.
- Add that die to the damage or healing done as part of one roll (but not if if I roll damage per creature, then I pick one).
That’s a lot of work for on average an extra 3.5 damage or HP to someone. I’ll probably just not use that feature to save on the headache. Maybe if it scaled some, was a little easier in play. How about “When you cast a spell that heals or damages, add a d6 to the result”. Faster, and clearer. Also, I know my paraphrase of how this ability works RAW is confusing, but try reading what was written. I think I did better.
Tales from Beyond: This is the hot shit feature for the subclass, and the reason you take it. It comes online at 3rd level, and is neat in concept, if it wasn’t needlessly complicated for minimal bonuses. If you are holding your Spiritual Focus, you can use a bonus action and a use of your inspiration to roll on a table. You gain a power that you can use until you take a short rest. The target of your power must be within 30ft of you, and you can only have one power at a time. Each power is a “Tale” that you tell the person triggering some effect. The powers are all kind of cool, and I love randomly determined powers for a PC. These though, they kind of suck, and there’s a pretty good chance your result is not level appropriate. See, you always roll on the same d12 chart. You roll your inspiration die and pick the result it gives. So when you hit 15th level and can finally roll a d12, you have a 1/6 chance of getting the level 15+ level appropriate powers. More likely, you’ll roll a 1-10 (just ask your greataxe barbarian). The level 1-10 abilities are appropriate (theoretically) for lower level encounters, but you are still probably getting them. I’ll also gripe that they are basically all combat related, and not actually that great. So there’s nothing like getting a tale of the Flame Prince and sharing fire resistance to the party, or the Water Demon, and handing out water breathing. Its all the target magically spews fire from their mouth in a 30ft cone, forcing a dex save or fire damage into 3x your inspiration die save for half. That’s the 10 ability which comes online at level 10, and is pretty underwhelming.
Spirit Session: This is the level 6 feature, and its kind of cool. You do an hour long ritual as part of a short or long rest if you want, and can learn and cast a divination or necromancy spell from any class until the next long rest. You have to include friends, and the number of participants (including yourself) determines the level of the spell you can cast.
Mystical Connection: The subclass goes silent until 14th level, when you gain the ability to roll a d6 on the Tales from Beyond feature. If you do, you won’t ever get anything level appropriate, but you also don’t have to spend your inspiration die for it. If you’re doing this, I really hope you are at the end of some super grueling marathon fights and are sitting around debating cantrips.
Warlock: The Undead
The Undead needs a better name, but mechanically its actually pretty cool. Just don’t think about the ramifications of how these things happen in game, because the designers clearly didn’t.
Right off the bat, they explain that The Undead is an entity that resides in the dark corners of the multiverse, and could be someone like “Acererak, .. Strahd, or some other ancient undead being”. Kind of cool, but I’d really want to have those notes in the Curse of Strahd or Tomb of Annihilation paths. “Hey FYI, Strahd can totally give you warlock powers”. You’d think he would have a cabal of warlocks somewhere, or maybe throw it out as a tempting offer to PCs asking them to join him. Or imagine crawling through the jungles of Chult and battling your way to the bottom of the pyramid only to encounter … your boss. The rest of the party looks to you and one of two things happens.
- You betray them and join Acererack. There’s probably a TPK, and while the story might be interesting, the rest of the people at the table are kind of pissed at you.
- You tell Acererack you are going back on his deal to save your friends. So he cuts your powers off, and then the party gets a TPK, and you might have to sit without playing for a bit.
Like I said. Not super well thought out if you use their examples. You can also use other undead beings, so long as they are old enough. Which is kind of funny, because I certainly want my patron to be a crawling claw, skeletal warhorse, or “the ghost of this guy Greg who really just needs someone to deposit some mail so he can move on from the afterlife”. If it were me, I’d rewrite this to say something about how your patron is “The spirit of the ancient long dead first vampire/mummy/lich” and not a specific person from lore. I’d also probably mandate a sentient undead with goals and stuff. WoTC never really dives into this much for other patrons in general, and they should. In this case, its particularly bad.
Expanded Spell List: You learn some extra spells. These are spooky spells. I never really get excited about this sort of feature, but it is valuable when it appears.
Form of Dread: At level 1 you get a sweet power. You can take on aspects of your patron for a minute. This gives some cool combat buffs, and immunity to the frightened condition. Immunity is always neat, and I’ll take some basic combat buffs. You also take the appearance of your patron a little bit. So their example is gaining bat-like features because of a vampire, or a crown and robes of shadows because of a lich. But I like to think your head gets thumb-like, because of your crawling claw patron.
Grave Touched: At 6th level you don’t need to eat, drink, or breathe. This is a neat ability, but kind of “undead generic”. Because vampires totally drink blood, and zombies totally eat flesh. It also gives you the ability to transform any damage you deal to necrotic damage, and boosts your damage die by one if you are in Form of Dread. Retyping damage is cool, and making it optional is a nice power up, so you can dodge resistances as needed.
Mortal Husk: the 10th level feature gives you resistance to necrotic damage that becomes immunity when in your Form. Handy and worth writing down. It also gives you the ability to explode when you die. I don’t know of many undead monsters that do that in 5e, but maybe they liked the Diablo Necromancer. You come back to life with 1 HP and all your stuff. Its kind of funny and random, but a little out of nowhere.
Spirit Projection: Level 14 grants my favorite feature of the class. Its weird if your patron isn’t a ghost of some form, but its cool. Your spirit can leave your body, gaining more resistances as you fly about for an hour (no leaving your body at home while you adventure like in the good old 3.5 days). As a ghost, you can go through walls, fly, and resist bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage. Also, if you are using your Form, you deal necrotic damage to those near you and heal from it. Its cool, flavorful, useful, and gives combat + noncombat forms. Plus I get to tell the party “Hold on, I’m turning into a skeletal horse ghost and flying through the walls up ahead”.