Unearthed Arcana: Elf Subraces Breakdown
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!)
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.
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?
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.
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.