In keeping with the time-honored traditions of D&D, this week’s Unearthed Arcana brings us four more of the Baskin Robbins Thirty-One Flavors of Elf. Yes, I know that we have the good Professor to thank for elves coming in a ton of varieties, I too have read The Silmarillion and all the abstruse charts contained therein. Anyway, what we have here are the avariel, the grugach, the aquatic or sea elves, and the shadar-kai. (For another take on the shadar-kai, check out Shawn’s great article, A Visit to the Shadowfell. He’s covered sea elves too!)

Avariel

Just as a baseline, let’s keep in mind that the community is still hugely divided over whether a flying PC is okay at 1st level without serious work. Personally, I’m inclined toward No. If you’re running entirely your own content, maybe you’ll remember to add ranged enemies to every encounter, but if you’re running a published adventure, you suddenly have a lot more mental load to deal with.

The avariel writeup is super short, but make sure you see what isn’t there.

  • Avariel don’t receive an ability score adjustment from their subrace.
  • Avariel do have a flying speed of 30 feet, as long as they are wearing light or no armor.
    • That restriction is a traditional part of avariel flight in D&D rules. When applied to 5e’s classes, it has a huge effect on which classes and subclasses anyone will bother to play as an avariel. I’m guessing the avariel have a tactical doctrine of salvation through Dexterity alone.
  • Avariel can speak, read, and write Auran.

And that’s it, but that flight thing is a huge game-changer. Now, there’s no discussion here of whether you have to modify your gear in any way to accommodate your wings. The Dragon Wings feature of Draconic Sorcery might lead one to expect such a thing. I also assume that in a lot of settings, an elf strolling down the way with feathery wings on at least gets a few odd looks. Maybe you can tell people you’re just on your way to a fancy-dress party?

If you want avariel in your game, these rules are basically fine. An absent point of ability score bonus is a decent balancing factor, all told. As I’ve suggested above, I don’t recommend this for adventures someone else wrote, unless you really do take the time to make sure every encounter has ranged weapons or spells available. Also, check to see if the adventure relies on physical challenges that would be instantly solved if one party member could fly. I seem to recall that, much like aarakocra, avariel traditionally have debilitating claustrophobia, but I’m not looking it up right now.

What I really don’t want to see – what I dread about this kind of content – is dozens of fights between players who want to play <PC RACE> and DMs who have some vision of a setting or a campaign that doesn’t include making sure every encounter challenges flyers. Even within the continuum of WotC Official Releases, not every setting needs to be a kitchen sink.

 

Grugach

Some elves are friendlier than others. Then there are the grugach, the wild elves of Greyhawk. A cultural inclination toward staying at home, shunning other races, and having no other ambitions is not exactly grade-A adventurer material. I assume there are a lot of “last survivor” or outcast types among their adventuring ranks.

  • +1 Strength. There aren’t a whole ton of builds that want both Strength and Dex, but if you find one, this subrace is here to tell you to go elf yourself.
  • Grugach Weapon Training grants the use of spear, shortbow, longbow, and net.
    • Let’s try to remember that nets are terrible because their default state involves disadvantage on attack rolls. I… think you can get around this with increased reach, maybe?
  • Grugach learn one druid cantrip, with Wisdom as their casting stat. So what I’m telling you is that this race has multiple-attribute-dependency issues, if they go after an attack cantrip. Pro tip, guidance is amazing and not stat-dependent.
  • Grugach don’t learn Common by default (from their elf racial features, anyway), but do learn to speak, read, and write Sylvan. I assume that they also speak, read, and write Elvish, because the text doesn’t specifically contradict that, and that feature is in the core elf race.
    • Um, if you don’t share at least one language with every other PC, you’re probably going to have a bad time. Language barriers within a party are interesting for right about one session. After that, not so much.

I’m pretty sure that between the race’s flavor text and their language feature, this subrace is just some mid-grade trolling from WotC. Yes, it’s also in keeping with the customary presentation of grugach – it’s just a great way to slow down or wreck gameplay. If a race is going to be this opposed to the most basic elements of adventuring life (talking, interacting with other races, doing things, and leaving home), maybe don’t play them as PCs?

 

Sea Elves

They’re elves with gills on. I don’t think I need to explain this a lot further.

  • +1 Constitution, because they live by the seaside and do a lot of swimming workouts.
  • Sea Elf Weapon Training covers the spear, trident, light crossbow, and net. I’m calling some minor shenanigans on medieval or early modern crossbows retaining string tension underwater, but maybe someone wants to come along and prove me wrong? Anyway, net proficiency is still a net loss, and tridents have issues.
  • Child of the Sea grants a 30-ft swim speed and the ability to breathe water and air. No surprises here.
  • Friend of the Sea is phrased to work around the fact that 5e doesn’t have subtypes, and thus doesn’t have an Aquatic subtype. It’s the forest gnome’s Speak with Small Beasts feature, but for the sea. You’re Aquaman, but only for Small and Tiny beasts.
  • They read, write, and speak Aquan.

This is basically fine and playable. The usefulness of Child of the Sea and Friend of the Sea are going to vary immensely from one campaign to another. In some games, you’ll use this to have an urchin army gathering information for you. (You have the Totem barbarian in my campaign to thank for that joke.) Just… I dunno, get on the same page with the DM before playing a sea elf. This is a universally good policy.

 

Shadar-Kai

I have to admit, I like the shadar-kai a lot more without the pain-cultist and spiked chain things they had going on in previous versions. They’re still into piercings and tattoos, but that’s fine. I’m just saying, Cenobites are not a PC race.

  • +1 Charisma, which… is a weird decision to me, but okay, I guess the Raven Queen grants them mystical presence.
  • Shadar-kai gain one cantrip, chosen from chill touch, spare the dying, and thaumaturgy, with Charisma as their casting stat. There are some shadar-kai bards and paladins who are over the moon to have a solid damage-dealing ranged attack cantrip. If you want to be awesomely disturbing, though, thaumaturgy is fantastic, and spare the dying is… well, if you’re using it in a creepy way, it’s ultra-creepy.
  • Blessing of the Raven Queen is the showstopper. Once per short rest, they can use a short-range teleport that also gives them damage resistance until the start of their next turn, because they’re ghostly. Sooo a bonus action teleport that also mitigates all damage? Hot damn.

The shadar-kai are hilariously better than high elves. It’s not quite as 1:1 a comparison as the UA eladrin were a little while back, but it’s hard to imagine a character needing weapon or extra language proficiency nearly as much as they need a teleport that grants universal damage resistance. As WotC plays around with more elf subraces, they keep wanting to go big on features. They probably needed to have shoved a few more of the core elf features into the subraces, even if they were duplicated in several subraces, just so they could withhold them in some of these later releases.

This, then is a fairly lightweight UA, but anything released a few days after Xanathar’s Guide to Everything can probably be forgiven – the community has acres of new content to digest just now. The issues that I have with the grugach go back to their initial appearance, in an unbroken line, so WotC can either break with tradition or just let it be Gary’s fault. An elf and a dwarf for every climate and terrain type… well, that bugs me more, because doesn’t that mean that elves and dwarves are more adaptable than humans, since they actually adapted? Eh, whatever.

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  • Manos Ti

    Thanks for the write-up Brandes!

    The crossbow proficiency of the Sea Elves is really weird. I’d change that to proficiency in darts. Also, Shawn has posted some cool alternatives to the vanilla trident as well (one can find them here: http://www.tribality.com/2015/01/09/fixing-the-trident-homebrew-dd-5e-trident/).

    The problem with the low-level flying PCs is a big one. This is why in all of the campaigns I’ve played they’ve been banned. In any case, a homebrew game with lots of flying seems a good idea, but you need some mechanics from miniature wargaming in order to represent the altitude factor better.

  • Thanks for the shout outs on my homebrew races! Great job on getting this out so fast.

    As Brandes says:
    “What I really don’t want to see – what I dread about this kind of content – is dozens of fights between players who want to play and DMs who have some vision of a setting or a campaign that doesn’t include making sure every encounter challenges flyers. Even within the continuum of WotC Official Releases, not every setting needs to be a kitchen sink.”

    A good way to avoid this issue is to create a player’s guide for any campaign. Clearly state what is includes and excluded to avoid those battles.
    http://www.tribality.com/2016/01/08/writing-a-players-guide-for-your-new-campaign/

    • The arguments I’m seeing amount to “why should the DM get to decide what’s in the campaign, what are they, some kind of TYRANT?!!?!?!!” and once that’s the hill you plan to die on, I don’t think offering a player’s guide is going to bridge that gap. People just gotta accept that sometimes two people can’t come to agreement about what they want to do together next. When that happens, either you decide to give one person a little more authorial weight, or you go your separate ways and look for someone who does want to do the thing you want to do.

    • Lilfut

      I mean, fair, but that’s frankly kind of a shitty reason to say WotC shouldn’t publish interesting things, just because they might theoretically cause an argument.

    • Right, my position is more “maybe WotC could be a pal and give DMs some cover here.” I am not really here for runaway autocratic DMing, though, so I just want ultra-entitled players to slow their roll.

    • Lilfut

      The easiest way to do that, of course, is just to say “you are not allowed to use any UA [with the exception of x, y, and z]”

    • I always state which specific UA race, subrace, feat, class, etc is allowed.

    • I mean, in my own game, players assume that everything in the PH is legal, and everything not in the PH requires approval, unless I made it myself. As it happens, I’ve written more than a dozen new subclasses and a couple of new classes, so they have tons of options that they don’t need to clear with me. =)

    • Alex Mitchell

      I hear you on this, and I’d like to see a little advice for DMs and players around how to deal with flying PCs.

      BUT– those ultra-entitled players are eventually going to become a problem in your game regardless of the race options, I’d wager. They don’t sound very fun to play with.

    • crimfan

      I just don’t want to be around ultra-entitled players at all.

    • After reading Xanathar’s, I not very afraid of WotC breaking my game. They sell the PHB +1 rule pretty hard.

      Some of the player choices I thought were going to be a problem ended up being real winners at the table. We all want that invested player, but you gotta draw a line in the sand that works for you.

    • Marandahir

      Honestly, I’m always leaning on the side of yes-and DMing.

      As a DM, it’s my perogative to find a place for their character race in the world. It might not be a kitchen sink world, but if it’s an officially WotC published material, I want to find a place if they have a really neat character concept. Even if I’m running Dark Sun or Ravenloft – it’s just that the AND carries a lot of weight there. It might make the player rethink their choice, but that is never my intent with the ruling. The intent is to find a way to fit their character into the larger game. It might be that they’re a one-off case, or a random traveller from another world who thought they were on the road to over-there and ended up over-here instead. What does a novitiate of Pelor do when they’re the only REAL divine cleric in all of Athas?

      I recognise that some DMs don’t want to be accomodating. But I find that the bad form usually lies on the side of the DM in this particular argument. That said, when I am DM, I have a personal allow/ban list of 3rd party material, which mostly pertains to EN5ider and Tribality and JesterDavid’s website stuff, though I also have some DM’s Guild material allowed. Otherwise, Unearthed Arcana, DM’s Guild Adept, and WotC-published DM’s Guild material (Tortle, Grung races, Expanded Racial Feats) material are all sanctioned for play in my games.

    • Huh. I really, really wouldn’t do that in a game I was running. For example, if I were running a campaign set in Athas, I’d ask players to meet me halfway and play characters that were appropriate to Athas. Or, you know, the cleric of Pelor just doesn’t get spells or class features, because those things don’t work on Athas. Also everyone thinks he’s just making up new gods and reports him to the templars.

      Your mileage obviously varies. =) You do you.

    • Lilfut

      I still remember when someone really wanted to play a Dragonborn in our Birthright campaign. Coming up with the justification for that was pretty fun (we went with an ancient race of humans who were enslaved and modified by a dragon and only recently liberated)

    • Dave(s) 4 Goombella

      Oooh, thanks for cluing me in to those expanded Racial feats. My Kobold just hit level four at the end of my last session, and he’s been having a persistent problem with climbing and mobility…

    • I try to provide a ton of options, but limit what I know won’t work for the setting or the style of game I plan to run.

      In my current campaign, we’re playing in Tomb of Annihilation in Eberron. Like most worlds, it tries to fit everything into the world. I provided a ton of options and I end up with 5 humans and a half-orc.

      You can’t win 🙂

  • Colin McLaughlin

    Maybe we could get blood elves that live in the blood swamp that fight blood monkeys.

  • Ace of Lances

    Early xbow strings often made of animal sinew, or digestive tract, from esophageal to the intestines; quite robust, while they would ‘work’ underwater, as the tension is more an affect of the limbs of the bow, the string would degrade faster in salt water. Same goes for jute strings and other plant matter that were used in localized settings.
    Probably would need a new approach to xbow strings; I’d say whale product may be better for this(?) Or magical whales for sure 😉

  • Episteme

    “I’m guessing the avariel have a tactical doctrine of salvation through Dexterity alone.”

    BWAHAHAHAHA!!!

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  • Alex Mitchell

    My solution for constantly flying PCs is usually to remind them from time to time what happens when they suddenly STOP flying in midair– falling damage and the prone condition often makes them a bit more cautious. Also, flight really should only come into play in encounters with enough room for a character to believably spread their wings and maneuver.

    • Alex Mitchell

      Obviously there are scenarios where flight is an incredible advantage, and it takes a bit more work to let those flying PCs feel successful while not circumventing too much or making other characters feel underpowered.

      But at the end of the day, flying character races are represented in fantasy fiction, so I’d like a way to include them in my games.

  • crimfan

    I don’t find flying to be a totally killer advantage. It’s nice, absolutely, but there are plenty of times where it’s not. You’ll be drawing missiles and spells, often without the benefit of cover. In a lot of environments, like a dungeon, city, or in a more social encounter, it’s not particularly useful. I can see the issue for a character that’s got great missile potential—as Dex-loaded as they are, likely a lot—in a fight with pure ground pounders, but in that case you’re not taking your share of the damage, so someone else often will be.

    I get the advantage but I guess I just don’t find it an insurmountable one and would have no real problem allowing an avariel in my game. That said, I’m an experienced DM who always tailors encounters that are written in a published adventure to the party so a noob might want to avoid that.

  • crimfan

    The avariel had claustrophobia and also were knocked out of the sky by too much damage (as were most winged flyers) in 2E. You can find their 2E stats online but I’ve found every time I post a link my posts disappear into some kind of black hole of “moderation” so I won’t do it. Search for “elf, winged” on Lomion dot de.

    I am less bothered by flying PCs. There are lots of situations where it’s not an advantage: Confined spaces and social situations both come to mind, as would any situation requiring a disguise. I’m also a firm believer in “combined arms” so I tend to make most combats involve some missile or spell enemies enemies. The flyer—who will often be lacking in cover—will typically be drawing some extra fire. In combats they’re not, the grounded allies will be often taking more damage, which is likely to balance out reasonably well.

    I do think that for an inexperienced DM this can be a problem, though, so DMs should definitely think twice about allowing a flyer PC, or just try them on a provisional basis, say in a one shot.

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