As the first Unearthed Arcana release following the announcement of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (coming this November), we have a clearer idea of WotC’s timeline and plans. This article, then, rehashes four subclasses and many of the Eldritch Invocations from previous releases, in some cases going quite far back. Let’s get to it.
Circle of the Shepherd (Druid)
In its original form, I found this to be one of the least appealing of the new druid offerings – thematically fine, but mechanically quite dubious. Looking ahead, I can already see that they’ve left the thing that I thought was a problem basically unchanged. So this’ll be fun. Also, just a pro tip, this flavor text summarizes everything that has steered druids away from being good party members over D&D’s history, other than 2e’s bizarro bullshit depiction of True Neutral.
- Speech of the Woods teaches you Sylvan and lets you talk to all beasts (but doesn’t make beasts any friendlier to you). The ability to speak to beasts and fey could just get kicked over to standard for all druids as far as I’m concerned.
- Spirit Totem is the central playstyle feature of the subclass. As before, it summons a spirit that is not a targetable creature or object, and that exudes a 30-foot aura; now, you can move it up to 60 feet as a bonus action, rather than having it remain immobile for its whole 1-min duration.
- Bear Spirit is unchanged – it grants a bunch of temporary hit points and advantage on Strength checks and saves.
- Hawk Spirit is quite different. Instead of passively granting advantage to all ranged attack rolls against creatures in the aura, the druid can spend their reaction to grant advantage on any attack roll against a target in the aura. Overall this is useful in more situations, but by far fewer characters at a time (since it costs the druid’s reaction). Fortunately, the druid’s reaction economy is not particularly strained.
- Unicorn Spirit is the new Wolf Spirit. It otherwise hasn’t changed at all, which means it’s the most insane healing buff I’ve ever seen. Any healing spell you cast that heals someone in the aura also splashes your druid level in healing to all creatures of your choice in the aura. It doesn’t take long at all for the bonus healing value to outstrip the base healing value of whatever you’re casting – if we’re talking about healing word and about three targets (which should be trivial in a 30-foot radius!), your bonus healing output surpasses your spell’s output at about 3rd This is just ridiculously overpowered – but then it would have to be, to keep up with the massive numbers of temporary hit points that the Bear Spirit kicks out. Unicorn Spirit takes the lead once you cast two healing spells in that minute.
- Mighty Summoner is mostly unchanged, but now it applies to fey summons as well as beast summons. But the changes it offers don’t matter much at all to the fey type that you really hope your DM has show up. (I’m talking about pixies.) I do like that the Shepherd is now more explicitly fey-friendly; I would like to see more talking-animal type fey.
- Guardian Spirit is now way more on-theme. It used to grant the druid a death ward for kinda no reason; now your aura passively heals beasts and fey that you summon when they end their turn in its area. If you have summoned creatures that are tough enough not to be one-shotted by your opponents, this is great! Once you hit 11th level and conjure fey is on the table (your only way to get a beast or fey above CR 2, to my knowledge), we’re really getting somewhere. (But do let’s keep in mind the action economy and game-slowdown issues abounding in playing any character heavily reliant on summons or pets.)
- Faithful Summons is unchanged, and not terribly impressive. When you’re put out of a fight, you summon four CR 2 beasts… who have no ability to stabilize your rapidly cooling corpse. Let’s hope your allies can take care of that part while your beasts do something useful about enemies that took down a 14th-level character. The best we can say for this is that it gives the Shepherd something to do on their turn other than just rolling death saves.
I criticized the first version of this Circle pretty heavily for failing to marry theme and mechanics. They’ve made forward movement on that front, but I still say Wolf/Unicorn is just far too much, egregiously outstripping the Life cleric’s healing output. We can do a point-for-point on comparing Unicorn Spirit to Preserve Life if necessary; the bigger the party, the better Unicorn Spirit’s edge. If you’re willing to spend two spell slots rather than just one, and your party has several characters who need healing (past just bloodied), Unicorn Spirit absolutely crushes Preserve Life. It’s a bit tangled in the fact that clerics get more than one Channel Divnity per short rest, but it can’t push anyone above their bloodied value, while the druid can only use the Unicorn Spirit once per short rest and has to spend spell slots on healing. In short, I think this subclass still has some significant balance issues, and the potential for unsatisfying play (for everyone at the table) with summon-heavy characters is very high.
Other than the fact that we know for sure that this is going in XGtE, it’s kind of surprising to see this here. I honestly don’t know why the demand for a Cavalier is high in the userbase, since… well, I haven’t played any games where mounted combat would be feasible all that often. Not that this Cavalier is deeply dependent on mounted combat, but then we circle back to “what was the point of this again?”
Anyway, they’ve returned to one of their early approaches, based primarily on Combat Superiority dice. That’s a super interesting choice, in ways I think I didn’t fully appreciate in its first outing; let me get to that in its own time.
- Bonus Proficiency grants the Cavalier one skill from a nobility-flavored list, or one language. I’m fine with this – overall, you’ve got to get really egregious with basic skill proficiency for me to object.
- Born to the Saddle communicates “mounted combat is easy for me,” giving the Cavalier breaks on a lot of the things that make mounted combat inconvenient. In a lot of games, this is barely more than a ribbon.
- Combat Superiority gives them four maneuvers and 4d8, which improve to 6d12 in exactly the way you’d expect.
- Control Mount applies one of your CS dice to an Animal Handling roll that you or an ally make. Getting to aid an ally who isn’t proficient in Animal Handling is actually a huge deal. Since we don’t have a lot of use cases that would make an Animal Handling check hard to pass for proficient characters, I think using it for other people is the main thing that makes this maneuver interesting at all.
- Precision Attack is unchanged from its Battle Master form. I think I’ve talked about this before, but it’s the kind of feature that hides its real power. So let’s not mess around: this is about Great Weapon Master and negating the attack penalty of the power attack option. Oh, sure, cavaliers should have shields and longswords and lances and who are you kidding, you need a heavy weapon.
- Trip Attack is unchanged from its Battle Master form. Thematically, it’s here to let you dismount opponents in a joust, or to knock aerial opponents out of the sky while you’re riding a flying mount. Practically speaking, your opponent still gets two saving throws to avoid being dismounted. Don’t worry, a later feature has your back here.
- Warding Maneuver is, you know, the Protection fighting style but not mostly-useless? It applies the CS die roll to AC, and if the attack still hits, grants resistance to the attack’s damage. Super good, and worth using even if you already know the attack is a crit.
- The slightly-non-obvious thing about giving Cavaliers CS dice is that Martial Adept becomes an absolutely amazing feat for them, and opens the whole Battle Master list to them.
- Ferocious Charger lets you dump a second CS die on Trip Attack, and imposes disadvantage on the Strength save to avoid falling prone. What it doesn’t help with is the Dex save that prone characters make to avoid falling from their mounts (with a very modest DC of 10). Anyway, this feature suggests that the Cavalier is all about a devastating opening round (tack the Charger feat onto this to really sell it), and that seems thematically correct to me.
- Improved Combat Superiority and Relentless do exactly what Battle Master teaches you to expect.
This Cavalier gets the job done, but it lacks a lot of flash in its mechanics – it’s so very close to being a subtype of Battle Master. I would like to see more new things going on here, and more flavor after 7th level (the last level that you get anything unique to the Cavalier).
Oath of Conquest (Paladin)
This is one of the most recent items appearing in this document. Its theme is still Lawful Evil Paladin Comma Space Probably Serving Hell, which I can get behind even if the hell knights of my own campaign are Oath of Vengeance with slightly different tenets.
- The Oath Spells are slightly changed – identical at 3rd, 5th, and 9th level, but tweaked different at 13th and 17th. Stoneskin replaces blight, and cloudkill replaces insect plague – lateral moves overall.
- Channel Divinity retains its Guided Strike option, while Conquering Presence replaces Conquering Strike. Instead of frightening a single creature as part of a strike, you frighten enemies within 30 ft for 1 minute. That’s certainly a huge increase in the likelihood that you frighten someone, and it fits into a later feature quite nicely.
- Aura of Conquest is now quite different. Where before it imposed disadvantage on saves against frightened, now frightened creatures inside your aura have a Speed of 0 (that’ll make fleeing a real bitch), and they take psychic damage equal to half your paladin level for starting their turns there.
- The massive stickiness effect of reducing Speed to 0 is great, if incredibly punishing to creatures without ranged options. You don’t get to choose who passes the save and who fails, of course, so there’s no telling who you’ll actually catch in your net. The psychic damage, though… that could be a lot of bad guys standing there slowly getting scared to death. I think it might run a little overboard. I’m worried about cases where this goes from stickiness and a debuff to massive action denial and Obviously, that’s a much bigger deal at 18th level, though immunity to the frightened condition renders this feature and Conquering Presence frustrating across the whole spread of levels.
- The one thing about the loss of the original Aura of Conquest is that I liked that it encouraged the paladin to team up with necromancers, warlocks, anyone who could throw a lot of fear spells – it had the sort of subtle effect of casting the Conquest paladin as the vanguard of an army of darkness in ways the current one does not do as well.
- Scornful Rebuke replaces Implacable Spirit, and as you all know I’m thrilled to see any player-accessible immunity get drowned in a sack. On the other hand, giving a main tank a “thorns” effect (we all speak Diablo II here, right?) equal to their spellcasting stat is… going to be a hell of a lot of retributive damage, but in a nickel-and-diming way. I feel like this will do more to annoy the DM than seriously injure 15th-level opponents.
- Invincible Conqueror is unchanged.
I think the intended gameplay here is a lot clearer – a frighten effect (along with casting fear at 9th level and above) with a root and DoT to stand in for some of the ground-target effects of a WoW Death Knight, plus a very tank-friendly bit of retributive damage and a capstone that makes all that tanking way more forgiving. I think it might be a bit much overall, but it sacrifices a lot of the survivability of Devotion and Ancients for even more raw aggression than Vengeance. If this could get toned down by about 10%, I think it would look about perfect to me.
The Celestial Patron (Warlock)
I was an unforgiving critic of the Undying Light when it was released, all the way back in Light, Dark, Underdark. Here we are in its revamp: they’ve ditched the theme of “a nonspecific force” as your Patron, which is a good start. On the other hand, it posits various heavenly entities as your Patron, and I still say that’s astonishingly tone-deaf to the rest of the class. Folks, take a quick look at the warlock’s Eldritch Invocation options in the Player’s Handbook, to say nothing of the spell list. They are sinister as all get-out, and deeply inappropriate to the servant of an angel or other celestial being. If you want to make this be a thing, start with the cleric class and fiddle with its theme as a Domain.
- The Expanded Spell List is a lot like a Light domain cleric’s Greatest Hits album, which I guess is on point with the story. Nobody plays main healer while relying on Pact Magic slots, so cure wounds is a lot less of a party-role shift here than it would be for anyone else.
- Bonus Cantrips grants sacred flame and light. This is totally adorable, as if sacred flame on its best frickin’ day is worth casting while eldritch blast with agonizing bullshit bolted on is an option. (Stay tuned for Still More Bullshit Eldritch Blast Upgrades, coming up next!) Light is nice to get for free, though.
- Healing Light used to be the Undying Light’s top feature, now moved to a level that it will actually see use at a table. This amounts to a somewhat more complicated version of Lay on Hands, with randomized output, per-action use limits, and no disease/poison curing. Getting to use this pool as a bonus action rather than an action (as LoH takes) is absolutely huge, though.
- Radiant Soul used to have the Bonus Cantrips feature folded into it. Accounting for those showing up earlier, Radiant Soul is unchanged – resistance to radiant damage, and add your Cha modifier to damage when you cast a fire or radiant spell. (This doesn’t come close to leveling the playing field for sacred flame, unless you just didn’t buy Agonizing Blast.)
- Celestial Resilience is a simple rename of Radiant Resilience. It still grants temporary hit points to you and up to five allies at the end of a short or long rest.
- Searing Vengeance used to come early in the progression rather than late, but it’s basically the same – Chumbawamba would be proud, as would the Phoenix sorcerer – as you explode and blind your enemies and get healed and stand up when you would otherwise roll a death save. I’m super amused by the mean idea of enemies cutting the warlock down and casting spare the dying immediately after, just to prevent the earth-shattering kaboom.
Almost everything that happened here was rearranging the same features, landing on a format that is at least a far more coherent intended playstyle. I am great with a healing warlock, but a shiny goodly warlock is a bridge too far for me. I will grant that if you aggressively reflavored Eldritch Invocations, selected carefully, and selected your spells even more carefully, you might be able to pull this concept together for me – it’s not like I have a problem with a PC serving an angel per se. I just think that without that heavy lifting, this concept doesn’t work.
Not all that long ago, we got a ton of Eldritch Invocations. Not all of them having been well-received, they’re taking another stab at it here, chopping all Patron prereqs. My deep regret here is that the previous version finally started to lay out a teensy bit of detail for Archfey names and flavor, and that’s gone from official text now. (On the plus side, that means that demand for my series on the Archfey here on Tribality might stay a little higher.) As before, I’ll be taking these quickly.
Aspect of the Moon is basically unchanged, but now requires Pact of the Tome rather than Archfey Patron. Whatevah.
Cloak of Flies replaces Cloak of Baalzebul, and its prereq changes from Fiend Patron to 5th level. Mechanically, the only change is some handling for your aura not extended through total cover – a wording we see in other damage-dealing auras as well. This does still possibly make you a team-killing jerkwad if you aren’t careful.
Eldritch Smite replaces a whole mess of invocations that conjured a weapon and allowed you to burn Pact Magic slots for murdertimes. Now it just turns your Pact Magic slot into damage declared after a hit, and if the creature doesn’t somehow negate the damage, it is knocked prone if it is Huge or smaller. Weird not to see any saving throw there – it’s clearly intended, but I’m so used to Strength saves for this kind of effect that it looks like an error.
Frost Lance is now a lot easier to get, and isn’t Archfey only. Its speed-reducing effect is also toned way down, from -10 ft per eldritch blast hit to just once for each of your turns. It’s still insane in combination with Repelling Blast, but it’s a lot more okay – and now the problem is with Repelling Blast, not Frost Lance.
Ghostly Gaze replaces Gaze of Khirad and tones it down to once per short rest, but it’s still Detective Vision. So, sure.
Gift of the Depths replaces Sea Twins’ Gift, shifting from requiring an Archfey Patron to just requiring 5th level. It also eliminates the cost of a Pact Magic slot for water breathing – you get one casting for free per long rest. Great fix.
Gift of the Ever-Living Ones replaces Green Lord’s Gift, and its theme is just nonsense. I got why the Green Lord boosted healing, but now a Chain Pact warlock with a familiar nearby gets maximized healing. That comes entirely out of left field. I’m glad for the Chain Pact to get a survivability boost, but this is unexpected and kind of a must-buy for anyone who goes Chain Pact.
Grasp of Hadar is unchanged except for cutting the Great Old One Patron requirement.
Improved Pact Weapon isn’t a progression of invocations anymore, so that’s good. It also solves the Pact of the Blade’s issues with needing a free hand for a spellcasting focus (good fix, but they all take rapier anyway, and don’t have shield proficiency natively). This invocation doesn’t require you to be 5th level anymore, which is good.
Kiss of Mephistopheles doesn’t require the Fiend patron anymore, which means it opens fireballs to every kind of warlock, rather than just Fiend ‘locks that already had access to fireball. I think this is probably a fair bit too good, and rises to the level of must-buy for any non-Blade warlock who takes an interest in damage output. At minimum, this is going to be a linchpin of a lot of warlock builds from the moment it enters official text, if it survives revision in this form.
Maddening Hex replaces Burning and Chilling Hexes, and opens it to warlocks who aren’t Hexblades. The target of your hex or hex-like feature becomes a psychic bomb, exploding with psychic damage on themselves and their allies within 5 feet for the low, low cost of your bonus action each round. Sure, it’s just your Cha modifier in damage, but as long as hex is active, you weren’t doing much else with your bonus action anyway. This is a very competitive purchase for making hex a much better damage kicker – where the Kiss of Mephistopheles is great burst damage, Maddening Hex is incredible sustained damage, and encourages your enemies to make bad tactical decisions.
Relentless Hex is now for all warlocks who do any serious cursing, not just Hexblades, and lets you teleport short distances as a bonus action. Probably only useful for Hexblades and Blade-pact warlocks, since other warlocks don’t want to stay 5 feet away from their cursed target.
Shroud of Shadow moves from an 18th-level prereq to a 15th-level prereq and drops its Great Old One Patron. The text is a lot simpler now – you just cast invisibility at-will. This is awesome, but reasonable for a late-game feature. If you’re enough of a warlock that this is available, you don’t have a ton of levels in the classes that would make this excessive… and it still costs your action.
Tomb of Levistus just changes its prereq from Fiend Patron to 5th level. It’s still an ice block panic-button feature.
Trickster’s Escape replaces Path of the Seeker, and in a rare twist, its theme makes more sense in this stripped-down form. Its mechanics have also been simplified – now it’s just one freedom of movement casting per long rest, for free.
I am still disappointed to see Patrons go away as requirements, because I like the idea that your Patron teaches you cool secret stuff. That’s why your character cut this deal in the first place! Also, getting rid of Patron requirements opens up combinations and uses that were mutually excluded before. Once again, the warlock’s tight budget of Eldritch Invocations, Spells Known, and Pact Magic slots has to carry all of the water on the class’s balance. On the other hand, we aren’t seeing a proliferation of “you can cast this spell with a Pact Magic slot once per long rest (and also screw you, sucker),” so that’s a mercy. These eldritch invocations are a huge boost to the variability of warlock builds, except where they might wind up replacing and narrowing builds again through power creep.
Taking the document as a whole, there are still things that I think are bad problems, to the point that I wish I could just ask them why such-and-such is a good idea. I would love to be shown to be wrong! I want to like all of WotC’s content. The Circle of the Shepherd is my biggest concern here, between the output of one feature and my doubts about the viability of the summoner playstyle (that is to say, without boring the rest of the table to tears).