It’s Monday, there’s a new Unearthed Arcana, and we also learn that we’re coming close to the end of weekly UAs and returning to monthly or semi-monthly UAs. Today’s document is all cantrips and 1st-level spells, which means I have a large number of things to discuss in a rapid-fire way. Honestly, this is some of the most fun stuff to cover in a breakdown. Commence. Primary. Ignition…

Spell Lists

Looking at the distribution of spells to spell lists, it’s disappointing that bards get no new cantrips – their list is thin on attack spells, so another option would have been great. Clerics pick up two new attack cantrips, which were desperately needed, but surprisingly, only two 1st-level spells; the absence of sudden awakening here just feels like an error. Druids do okay for themselves. Paladins get just one new spell, but I am straight-up fascinated to see what it is. (I’ll talk about that more below.) Rangers get a nice spread at four new 1st-level spells. Sorcerers get just one cantrip and two 1st-level spells, which seems a bit stingy, and the choices are perplexing. Warlocks tack on two cantrips and four 1st-level spells, but I think they’re an awkward fit and some great options got left out. Wizards, unsurprisingly, win the day with two new cantrips and seven 1st-level spells.

 

The Spells

Cause fear (warlock, wizard): A single-target fear effect, with the interesting hook of imposing disadvantage based on a hit point threshold. Certainly that’s the least-worst implementation of hit point threshold mechanics I’ve yet seen.

Ceremony (cleric, paladin, and to hell with you, WotC, for not giving it or something indistinguishable from it to druids, that is flat incorrect): Ceremony is a spell that first appeared in the 1e Unearthed Arcana, and I do not go along in life with a hell of lot good to say about that book, but this spell carries a phenomenal amount of water in showing cleric, druid, and paladin PCs how they represent their faiths in the world, and how life in the world connects to religions. This version offers seven individual ceremonies (of course it can be cast as a ritual, that’s the normal way you do it, and I love that that opens the door for priest NPCs who can only cast it as a ritual), as opposed to the ten of the 1e version, though I can’t argue too much with the options they’ve dropped.

It’s weird that you can reuse the powdered silver material component. I feel like that should be consumed, because otherwise you’re generating holy water for free, with a ritual. That’s probably going bad places. The atonement effect – once a spell that required a high-level cleric, because only the bishop or higher could grant atonement for serious infractions – is now accessible to all 1st-level clerics. I feel like I just watched an ecumenical council issue a ruling on rules design. (I’m Episcopalian, so this seems perfectly sensible to me.) Anyway, the effect of that is to take mechanical weight off of alignment, while still offering a tool in the toolbox if you want to make it a thing; I’d suggest that this is also a good story tool if a paladin wants to change Oaths, especially changing away from Oathbreaker.

The mechanics of Coming of Age and Dedication are a close lift of the originals. Funeral Rite used to be a one-week duration, and chopping that to 24 hours is rough. 1e’s Investiture ceremony is now filed under Dedication, and its new effect is what 2e (and possibly other editions) offered with another spell – but it’s cool and useful in any case. Interestingly, Marriage doesn’t allow for divorce and remarriage, or multiple marriage, or renewal of vows, because all of those things would be too open to powergaming. Also, apparently the threshold that one marital partner carries the other over in this world is the doorway to a dungeon they can clear in 24 hours or less. Honestly, the jokes kinda write themselves here. In conclusion, I have all the feels about ceremony.

Chaos bolt (sorcerer. No, I don’t know why warlocks don’t get this.): This is a solid adaptation of the 4e Wild Magic sorcerer cantrip. It is also a noteworthy sorcerer at-will in 13th Age. I really like how this one works, though it goes from “chaining” on 50% of all hits to just 12.5% of all hits. It also uses 2d8 for its base damage, but scales with d6s, which is usually an error, but chaos is in the name, so maybe it’s intended. The spell would be more interesting if it scaled by d8s, and those additional d8s could trigger chaining. It’s more dice-focused play than we mostly see in 5e, but it would be neat. The decreased chaining chance means that most of the time, this spell is pretty underpowered for its level, but sometimes it’s explosively amazing.

Guiding hand (bard, cleric, druid, wizard): This spell goes back a few editions, though I’d have to do some digging to figure out how far. 2e at least. If you know what your quest waypoint is and anyone has ever mapped it (I appreciate this restriction a lot), you now have a quest arrow. I’m not crazy about the visual, but I obsess over the tone implications of spell visuals more than is really justified.

Hand of radiance (cleric): This new cleric attack cantrip is a 5-foot-radius point-blank AoE, so now there’s stronger support for non-melee clerics closing to melee, or melee-friendly clerics wading into as much trouble as they can find. I like it.

Healing elixir (warlock, wizard): D&D Next and UA have taken a bunch of attempts at PC potion-brewing, and in a way this is another of those. It’s also a straightforward healing spell for two classes that really don’t do healing. It intersects oddly with the mechanics of Pact Magic – if you have the luxury of casting a few times, taking a short rest, lather-rinse-repeat before you start your adventuring day, this turns from a poor choice for warlocks to a great one. (It would be a poor choice because it has no scaling by spell slot level.) It’s a good option for wizards, though the intense competition for spell prep slots might get it left by the side of the road a lot.

EDIT: Waaaait. This spell is broke as shit. At the end of Day 1, you can dump all remaining spell slots into casting this spell. Eight hours later, you have completed a long rest, but you still have 16 hours to polish off those Healing Elixirs. From your Day-2 perspective (which might be your first day on the actual adventure), they’re totally free healing. This is a pretty bad problem. All of which is to say nothing of ripping people off by selling potions that cost you nothing at all, and vanish once you’re long gone.

Content Warning: my wife and anyone else with bug-related phobias should skip this next spell. I am not kidding. Putting it in a quote tag for ease of skipping.

 

Infestation (druid, sorcerer, warlock, wizard): Superficially, this is a damaging cantrip with a random forced movement component. Visually, it’s super gross, covering the target with “mites, fleas, and other parasites” for a moment. It could probably use some handling for what happens if the destination space is occupied, since that destination was not the caster’s choice. Also, we’ve had fleas in my house; the idea of carrying around a live flea to be the component of this spell is a huge thumbs-down to me.

 

Primal savagery (druid): It’s a melee cantrip, solid for the druid, phenomenal if you can work out a way to pair it with features that let you combine one or more attacks with casting a spell (such as the bard’s Magical Secrets feature). Looks good to me.

Puppet (bard, warlock, wizard): It’s a charm-like effect that lets you control the target’s movement if it fails its save. It probably needs a secondary save if the destination is obviously suicidal, such as bottomless pits. I like the theme, I just see far too much power in a 1st-level spell that lets you control the target’s whole path for a distance equal to their speed, and leaves them that same distance from any held items, like weapons. For humanoid fighters, this is often the only thing making them any threat at all in the fight, which is why the game doesn’t otherwise trivialize disarming effects. Also it plays into the game’s general over-use of charm immunity.

Sense emotion (bard, warlock, wizard; this seems like a good fit for clerics too): It’s a 10-minute Concentration effect that lets you pretty much Deanna Troi the encounter. Much like Troi often faced, if it isn’t humanoid or is immune to the charmed condition, the spell gives a misleading answer. This has its applications, as an automatic Insight check for some applications of the skill, but the times that it’s useful are probably rare enough that it’s not worth a bard’s or warlock’s precious Spells Known slot. Wizards should pick it up when they’re seeping excess cash out of every orifice, just for completeness.

Snare (druid, ranger, wizard for some reason): It’s a magical version of the classic dangling-upside-down-in-midair snare, which means it doesn’t need anything for you to be hanging from. It’s neat, and I’m glad the druid and ranger have a spell for woodscraft that isn’t otherwise explicitly supported in the rules. My Thornguard ranger conclave would particularly enjoy sporting this. Its 1-minute casting time means that its applications are narrowed, but still interesting.

Sudden awakening (bard, ranger, sorcerer, wizard): This spell slot turns the action you need to wake a sleeping character into a bonus action to wake all sleepers (well, everyone you want to wake) in a 10-ft radius, and adds in standing them up. The usefulness of this spell depends entirely on how often your DM interrupts your wilderness long rests with fights. I’ve been in campaigns where this would be among the most useful spells in the game, and I’m running one where it would not yet have had more than about one good opportunity for use.

Toll the dead (cleric, warlock, wizard): This is a great ranged damage cantrip – respectable damage output all the time, much better damage output once your target has less than its maximum hit points. Big fan all around.

Unearthly chorus (bard): Even Emperor Kuzco knows you shouldn’t do your own theme music, and he’s a fuckin’ llama. In theory, this spell is about subtly influencing people to be friendly to you. In practice, there is nothing subtle about radiating music, and I know maybe one player (not the bard in my campaign) who could be trusted not to make stupid jokes out of getting to choose their theme music. (Apologies to the bard, but, well, you know this about yourself.) I would never allow this in my campaign, because I care about protecting overall tone.

Virtue (cleric): A cantrip that grants super-short-duration temporary hit points. That’s an interesting idea, though its relative output is low enough (and it doesn’t scale with level, which seems weird) that it’s probably a bad bet 80% of the time, at least as compared to tossing another sacred flame or whatever. Give it a scaling feature, even if it’s just d4s or d6s, and the decision point looks a lot more interesting.

Wild Cunning (druid, ranger): Most of the things you’d use a Survival skill check for, this spell does instantly, or does in 10 minutes if you cast it as a ritual. Also it instantly sets up or tears down your campsite. The military applications of a druid or ranger sneaking up to the enemy camp and tearing down as much of it as each casting allows is… not going to come up often in D&D, but listening to a lot of military history lately influences my thinking. Other than that, it mostly looks like a waste of a Spells Known slot for the ranger, and a patch on the fact that druids don’t have Natural Explorer for some reason. If I were the party druid and needed to be the wilderness guide, you’d better believe I’d save myself the trouble and cast this. (I can’t be the only one who thinks it’s weird that rangers are actually better in the wilderness than druids, right?)

Finally, zephyr strike (ranger): Because ranger bonus action economy wasn’t already a garbage fire, we’re adding another reason. It grants a free Disengage (well, better than Disengage, it’s just “no opportunity attacks”), and advantage on your first weapon attack, and a speed boost. Basically, it gets you out of trouble or into trouble really quickly, and helps to make sure your parting shot or your opening strike land. Kinda weird to see a 1-minute Concentration effect with a bunch of first-turn-only benefits, but sure. It’s okay. It fills the major gap in the ranger, which was support for its skirmishing role. (Free Disengages and similar benefits are the core of the skirmisher role – just ask rogues and monks.)

 

Conclusion

Overall, I really like what they’ve presented here. Very few of the spells are just a mess, though some look like substantial underperformers. I like how many spells from previous editions surface again here. Unearthly chorus and infestation are the only things I would flatly keep out of my campaign, I think, and those are both for aesthetic reasons. My solution on puppet would be to get rid of the disarming effect and add an option for the target to take a bucket of psychic damage to refuse the spell’s control, just like my solution for crown of badness. I would probably give several of the spells here to more class lists than the document does. I’m also excited to see the next few weeks of UA goodness, because I’m pretty sure we’ll see Mearls’s long-touted What Do You Get For the High-Level Hero Who Has Everything? article before we’re done.

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  • MTi

    I’d give a couple or more to the Bard, because not only I love Bards (OK, I’m a bit biased) but also the burden of choosing spells using Magical Secrets is huge. I guess Magical Secrets is the real reason they limited the new options, but hey. At least Hand of Radiance and Toll the Dead could be easily fit the Bard list, plus the Bard needs some nice attack cantrips.

    Also, I’m pretty sure there are some unintended mistakes, like the scaling of d6s instead of d8s in Chaos Bolt (which is a great spell by the way).

    Finally, of course they are limiting UAs by now. They wanted all new content they are planning for the November publication (the “Midway”) to be playtested and now they are to refine it in order to have the book ready on time. I’m eager to see what will finally make it to the book and in which form.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      I’d like to see a list of bard spells they get per college, like some other classes and archetypes receive.

    • Chaos Bolt is a great thematic match for a Wild Magic Sorcerer. So many of these spells are actually interesting and more than just a reskin of a spell to another damage type.

      I hope we get a much bigger spell section in a book than we saw in Sword Coast. the number & quality of the spells found in Elemental Evil was great.

  • Colin McLaughlin

    I am obviously the player able to handle the burden of choosing his own theme music. Obviously.

    • Oh, yeah, for sure. 100%.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      I am beginning to doubt the sincerity of your statement.

    • Yeah? Weird. Uh, anyway… how ’bout that local sports interest?

  • Michael Watson

    The selection seems interesting but I’d probably houserule the 24h Ceremony stuff to a week or 1d4 days depending on which ceremony specifically. Investiture is also going to be a 24h minimum for sure in my book.

  • Because I am sometimes slow on the uptake, I finally noticed the game-breaking problem in healing elixir. It’s also edited into the article, above:

    At the end of Day 1, you can dump all remaining spell slots into casting this spell. Eight hours later, you have completed a long rest, but you still have 16 hours to polish off those Healing Elixirs. From your Day-2 perspective (which might be your first day on the actual adventure), they’re totally free healing. This is a pretty bad problem.

    • Anything that makes healing trivial OR reduces the utility of another class, like cleric, should be approached carefully. At least ‘healing elixir’ can’t be used in combat with the 1 minute casting.

      Maybe simply reducing 24 hours to 8 hours would fix it.

  • Wyvern

    Out of curiosity, what is it that you dislike about the 1e Unearthed Arcana? (I’ve never read it myself, but I’ve gotten the impression that it’s regarded as sort of a classic, so I’m intrigued as to why you have a dissenting opinion.)

    • You know, I’m glad you asked.

      The short version is that it introduces a bunch of new classes, and they are hilariously broken and also bad ideas.

      The longer version is that is also introduces Comeliness, which is a terrible idea (because Charisma needed to be diluted further?); does this whole big thing with “Racial Preferences,” which amounts to a tabulation of racism and sets humans as almost-universally neutral… except that humans like some races that don’t like them; introduces a bucket of additional thief skills that are so rarely used and thinly sliced that they’re just a mess; and the weapon types with their hit adjustments against specific AC numbers are just nonsense.

      In general, though, I am fine with the spells in this book, and a lot of enduring classics among D&D spells got their start here. The collection of cantrips are not a good example of this – by majority, they are tiny emotes in spell form. Some of the classics found here, though –

      Alarm
      Armor (mage armor)
      Mount
      Flaming Sphere
      Melf’s Acid Arrow
      Tasha’s Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter
      Melf’s Minute Meteor
      Sepia Snake Sigil
      Evard’s Black Tentacles
      Leomund’s Secure Shelter
      Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere
      Stoneskin
      Chain Lightning
      Eyebite
      Banishment
      Forcecage
      Energy Drain
      Mordenkainen’s Disjunction
      …and so on.

      Some number of these may have previously appeared in OD&D or Dragon Magazine, but I don’t have the fortitude to hunt down each of them right now. Suffice it to say that they didn’t make it into the 1e PH, but earned their place in the canon from UA.

      My opinion, then, is based on a lot of armchair design and critique of 1e, never having played it, and reading it for the first time something like 20 or 25 years after the fact. From this remove, I can safely be judgy as shit. 😉

  • Leons1701

    I’m pretty sure the scaling of Chaos Bolt is deliberate to prevent confusion over which d8’s are the ones that trigger the leap.

    • crimfan

      Probably so but it would be pretty cool if you up-slot the spell and get a match it’s more likely to leap and you get more choice.

      At risk of extra complexity, I could see branching the spell more if you have multiple matches. For instance, if you up it to 5th level and roll 5d8, getting 6,6,4,4,5, the damage would be 25 with the main target getting your choice of poison or force, and two other targets within range taking similar damage with a similar choice of poison or force.

      Don’t know if I have the numbers right exactly, but I think it would be pretty fun for the players to get a little dice poker in.

  • 1Mac

    Sudden Awakening: There’s no reason this couldn’t awaken creatures who’ve been put to sleep magically, right? Also, it says that each prone creature can stand up; it doesn’t say they had to be asleep before the spell was cast! Maybe that’s an oversight, but it’s certainly more useful and less situational if it arights anyone who’s been knocked prone, not just those who were put to sleep.

    • The unstated assumption in the article text is that other people have the same fairly-low level of magical sleep effects targeting PCs that I do – some, but rare, and it’s vanishingly rare for a single magical sleep effect to take down 2+ characters together.

      You’re absolutely right about the prone thing – those are clearly distinct clauses in the text, and I overlooked that in my first pass. On the other hand, spending your bonus action and a 1st-level slot to save multiple prone allies half of their move speed in their coming turns, and prevents enemies from having advantage on attacks between your turn and your allies’ turns, is still only sometimes a useful trade. When it’s what you need, though, this spell is solid.

  • Drow

    Hmm…I think I could use Unearthly Chorus in my game. None of the PCs are bards, but the wizard player already replicates the general idea with copious amounts of Minor Illusion and Prestidigitation (barring the Charisma checks, of course, but he could probably use the help). Seems like it’d fit a somewhat comedic campaign well, and the party could probably use an NPC foil as eccentric as they are.

    Granted, not letting him see any of this other stuff. He’s already using a (houserule-buffed) Artificer wizard school, and so already makes healing potions in a way that at least carries an opportunity cost.

  • When it comes to Unearthly Chorus I think its how you skin it:

    A Bard’s voice becoming the faint, ominous, whisper-chant of many unseen souls. After the bard ends his performance, the chant seems to take a life of its own floating in the air in a surreal haze. Those who hear it may feel the warmth of intoxication, the chanting overpowering their own thoughts, leaving them open to suggestion.

    • Unearthly Chorus is indeed a case where changing the descriptive text (and cutting out a little bit of player choice) solves the problem for me. I think what you’re describing both makes more sense – because it’s more subtle than “Bluff, Bluff, Bluff the stupid ogre!” – and fits the spell’s concept better.

  • Emergent Behavior

    Wild Cunning is crap. It’s another unimaginative spell designed to de-emphasize the importance of skills, thereby minimizing anybody who’s not a spellcaster.

    It’s getting to a point where our intrepid heroic adventurers don’t need any skills at all, they have all manner of ridiculous handy spells to clean their dishes and make a magic tent, and even hunt for them now?

    Seriously man, every time we make magic less “magic” and more utilitiarian, the coolness of the game dies a little more. Let’s get back to the point where magic is good for dealing with otherworldly shit. For the real world skills should be required.

    What’s next, a magic blender spell? Creates +2 margueritas?

  • Nick Cerabino

    Druid v. Ranger- think of the wilderness like a business. The Ranger is that person who’s been working there since they were 18- might not be their responsibility, but they Know that place inside and out and at times is the only thing standing between it and ruin- although these are usually solitary and quiet moments. The Druid is the boss’s kid, heir to it all. Level 1 boss’s ki- I mean, Druid, is more a liability than asset, but come those high-teen levels they run the show.
    But, that’s the point- when it comes to closing down the shop, finding that crucial missing doodad- aka, Wild Cunning- I’m going with the old vet over the boss’s kid to get it done every time

    • That… is a really strange assertion to make about class flavor. Can you unpack a little more why you see a 1st-level druid as a kid and a 1st-level ranger as a veteran?

  • Lunar Oberon

    I feel like many people are missing the potential applications of Unearthly Chorus. Forget the music gimmick and just consider this: for ten minutes you can use your bonus action to attempt to charm someone, assuming combat timing that’s one bonus action every 6 seconds, or 100 charm attempts over a ten minute period. What could a bard do with 100 charmed people in an hour? Compare that to charm person, which allows you to charm a single person with a spell slot of the same level.

    • Well… maybe. It sort of depends on whether the DM sees the “music gimmick” as a readily recognizable sign that a bard is manipulating the minds of people around them. I think there’s a completely valid approach to the game where this is treated as common knowledge, and a bard caught doing it is treated just as harshly as one casting charm person to manipulate people.

      Certainly one of the spell’s strangest features is that it circumvents immunity to the charmed condition, since the spell goes way out of its way to re-describe the charmed condition rather than using the condition name. Immunity to the charmed condition is handed out way too freely in the Monster Manual and in player-side mechanics, but I hardly see how a 1st-level spell should be allowed to circumvent it en masse.

      So in short, great point, the spell is broke af.

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