Unearthed Arcana: The Faithful Breakdown
Awesome, Unearthed Arcana is on time! This time around, we have two new subclasses addressing arcane casters that have ties to faith or a deity: the Seeker Patron and Pact of the Star Chain for warlocks, and the Theurgy Tradition for wizards. Mearls mentioned on Twitter, over the course of last month, that this article would address something that has bothered him for 30+ years; it turns out that the issue is “how to portray followers of a god of magic without making them clerics.” Let’s see how well this works out.
The Seeker Patron
This new Patron for warlocks is all about esoteric quests for knowledge, which apparently take place primarily in the Astral Plane. The Patron’s features have everything to do with the power of the Astral, and essentially nothing to do with knowledge – there’s a separate Pact to draw in knowledge-related themes. I’m not sure the Seeker Patron would be a good fit for my campaign, but looting these Astral-related features for repackaging in other contexts seems likely.
Okay, I take a little of that back: the Seeker’s Expanded Spell List is pretty knowledge-focused. Well, knowledge and some travel utility. The list is fine, except that warlocks get so few Spells Known that you’ve got to be pretty sure you’ll cast something early and often to make it worthwhile.
The 1st-level feature is Shielding Aurora. It grants resistance to damage and a 10-foot damage aura that punishes enemies for ending their turns too close to you. It would do very nicely for blade-pact warlocks (especially those with the Sentinel feat) or characters with the War Caster feat. I was getting worried that War Caster wasn’t good enough (he said ironically), but all told this feature doesn’t get all that impressive until higher levels, as the damage output scales. If you have a fighter buddy who is really good at locking down an area, it could get pretty brutal I guess. God help you if you allowed Tunnel Fighter from the playtest into your game unedited.
Astral Refuge shows up at the same level the Player’s Handbook patrons grant a panic-button power, and it serves about the same purpose. It’s fair to call it a limited-function Action Surge, as you spend one action to gain two actions, and both of those actions can only be used to cast a spell that targets only you. (Presumably you can also Do Nothing.) This gets a lot better if you’ve multiclassed into another spellcasting class, or spent a feat on Magic Initiate, so that you could use it to fake a Second Wind or a buffing round. That’s not really what the warlock spell list is known for, but they have a few useful functions along those lines.
One of the best uses I see right off is making one of those spells invisibility, so your enemies see you disappear without casting a spell, and never reappear. A lot of the function here relies on exactly how the DM describes the action and what the NPCs get to know – though in this case, the more they think you have a quick escape route to the Astral, the better off you are.
Far Wanderer is fine. It’s a lot less weird than the core three Patrons – two of which are immunity-plus and one of which is resistance that you get to change up. No longer needing to breathe is pretty cool – suffocation and drowning aren’t super common ways to die in most campaigns, but I guarantee that players will figure out ways to make this part of their zany plans. I would kinda like something flashier, but this lets you wander the seas, deserts, and arctic, so I see how it’s on message.
Astral Sequestration is, arguably, pretty crazypants. Once per day, your party’s short rest takes 5 minutes instead of 1 hour. If you’re in a game where PCs customarily take one short rest in a day, this might be a big deal. If your group takes lots of short rests, you’re already overpowered as a warlock, so the dilution of this feature is not that big a deal to you! Because it works for the whole party, this is a lot more impressive than Eldritch Master at 20th level, even if it’s 5 minutes rather than 1.
On the whole, I feel fairly good about the Seeker Patron. It’s always possible that I’d be proven wrong in actual play, but I think that it’s pretty tame in general throughput. I’m concerned that there are some multiclassing issues from Astral Refuge, because… the warlock is Grand Central Station for multiclassing, and there are no limits to how many times you can use Astral Refuge.
The two features with Astral in the name do kinda treat the Astral Plane like it’s nothing more than the Pocket Demiplane of Naps. There’s a whole lot more to the Astral in D&D cosmology – githyanki pirates, dead gods, color pools – that probably ought to be relevant to an archetype that references the Astral so heavily. I guess it isn’t appropriate for all applicable Patrons? But then, warlocks with actually-divine Patrons are weird breaches of cosmology as established.
If you changed Shielding Aurora to psychic damage and Far Wanderer to resistance to psychic damage (and one more thing TBD), this would be a pretty solid representation of Vlaakith CLVII. Just sayin’.
Pact of the Star Chain
You apparently have to have the Seeker as your Patron to pick this Pact, but I don’t really see why. The text mentions that it’s a reference to Celestian in Greyhawk, presumably so we won’t think about how its features point to maesters in Westeros. Anyway, it lets you cast augury as a ritual, and lets you decide to have advantage on one Intelligence check per short or long rest. Augury is one of the few spells in the game (divination is another) that carries an internal limiter – cast the spell too often and it starts going awry. That’s an okay way to make something a spell that doesn’t cost spell slots, but you don’t want to use too often. The Pact of the Star Chain is okay, little underwhelming maybe, but could really use a couple of invocations that stem from it the way the core three Pacts have.
The Theurgy Tradition
We all remember mystic theurges from 3.5, right? Probably one of the most controversial prestige classes of the edition, and easily the most controversial in the DMG (even if the arcane trickster is as bad or worse). This is not a good place to argue the balance of these classes; let’s just agree that we all fought about them back in 2003-2008. I like the concept a lot, as it merges two paths of mysteries. Of course, for 5e, they’re obliged to drop the “mystic” part, since that has a technical meaning now.
What they’ve done here is a pseudo-cleric that uses the wizard chassis, so naturally I need to compare it to the pseudo-wizard that uses the cleric chassis – that is, the Arcana cleric, found in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. (In principle the Knowledge cleric should also work here; in practice that is not really what Knowledge winds up being about.) Except that, in a sense, this wizard borrows just the domain almost more than it borrows the core of the cleric class.
First, you pick a domain, with the Divine Inspiration feature. This feature doesn’t do anything but declare that domain and give all of the other features something to point to.
Arcane Initiate needs more analysis to judge than it seems at first blush. You can drop wizard spells from your spellbook to pick up cleric spells. Sure. Well, you’re still a wizard, Harry, so you obviously just add those spells back. Okay, but you can’t always get what you want – if you try, sometimes, you just might find that you have to pick up all of your domain spells of the levels you can currently cast first.
But wait. A lot of domain spells are also wizard spells. So get your scribin’ hand ready and take out a bank loan, because any time there is a domain spell that is also on the wizard list, you want to pick it up through plain old spell-gathering. Your goal here is to continually get back to the point where you can trade out one wizard spell for any cleric spell of a level you can cast. Logically, that is probably true only for even-numbered levels up to 10th, and all levels thereafter. After all, when you gain access to a new level of spells and learn two new spells, at best you now have both of your domain spells for the level. My interpretation of this text suggests that active, engaged gameplay as a wizard can increase the flexibility and value of this feature. That’s pretty unusual! It also means that a Theurgic wizard created higher than 1st level is probably objectively weaker than one played from 1st level.
Oh, and if you’re taking the Arcana domain? Yeah, those are all wizard spells. With “ideal” play, you’re probably picking up any fifteen cleric spells you want over the course of 20 levels.
I assume that you still have to prepare Arcane Initiate spells normally, rather than being always-prepared like a cleric’s domain spells would be, because it doesn’t spell out that they’re always prepared.
Other wizards can’t copy cleric spells out of your spellbook, which is an expected safeguard against “one Theurge and everyone’s a wizard-cleric from here on out.”
Channel Arcana gives you Channel Divinity uses on the same schedule as the cleric. Instead of Turn Undead, you gain Divine Arcana, a +2 bonus to the attack roll or saving throw DC of the next spell you cast. It’s weird to see flat +2s lying around in 5e, but this is your bonus action for the round, so you don’t have to keep remembering to add it. I guess it’s okay? You also get your domain’s 2nd-level Channel Divinity feature. Not all Channel Divinity features are created equal, though.
Arcane Acolyte grants you any 1st-level domain features that aren’t weapon or armor proficiencies. Once again, these are not all created equal. It’s fine for this subclass to steer you toward certain domains, but some number of players won’t map out what they’d get over the course of 20 levels, and they’ll be disappointed that they’ve made suboptimal choices.
Arcane Priest grants you any 6th-level domain features. Okay, sure.
There’s no feature in the Theurgy Tradition to give you a cleric’s 8th-level damage fixer. You still have your default cantrip scaling, of course, just no ability modifier add or d8-of-some-damage-type add. But, well, you should have a few big evocations up your sleeve, because you’re still a wizard.
Arcane High Priest is where the difference in class structure between clerics and wizards paints the designer into a corner, though the text covers for it with a flavor-text note. Wizards get their last subclass feature at 14th, while clerics get their last at 17th. If you’re going to get the cleric’s top feature, you have to get it before they would. On the other hand, you’ve gotten everything else in the subclass later than the cleric does, and by a greater margin.
This feature gets weird if your domain is Arcana. Starting at 14th level, you know and always have prepared one spell each of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th levels, but you can’t cast the last two for quite awhile yet. Also, the Light domain’s Corona of Light is frickin’ amazing for wizards. Have fun handing out disadvantage on all those saving throws against fireball!
All told, this subclass is more or less okay, but it’s going to be the origin of a lot of DM judgment calls on the rules, a lot of variation in how it plays at the table based on the DM’s style, and a lot of potential min-maxing. We haven’t seen many subclasses that let you lift from another subclass like this; it opens a door to unforeseen recombinations, one or two of which will have unintended consequences and need a DM prepared to ban them at the first sign of trouble.
Overall, I like how it goes about doing what it does, though I think that Arcane Initiate needs to drop the part where you have to fill in your domain spells first. Get rid of that, and the feature becomes much easier to parse, for only a minor increase in power. I’m betting that at least 75% of the people who sign on for Theurgy want to be wizards who can heal people. What’s the benefit in making them jump through spell-collecting hoops first?
Just to be clear, this isn’t part of the document, but it is part of the conversation. It’s a cleric that plays somewhat like a wizard. Its domain spells are all wizard spells, including the iconic magic missile. It also grants Arcana proficiency and two cantrips from the wizard list. Fine so far.
Arcane Abjuration is interesting in the hands of the wizardly cleric, rather than the nature-guardian cleric, but it turns or banishes elementals, fey, and fiends. That’s a broad enough list that it’s probably helpful just often enough over the course of 20 levels. I don’t love having all of your Channel Divinity options limited by creature type, though. It suggests that you won’t have a good reason to Channel Divinity in an awful lot of encounters.
Spell Breaker, other than being the name of one of my favorite magic items in fiction, can be an absolutely amazing improvement in efficiency. If an ally is affected by a enemy spell with a duration, heal your ally and save the slot necessary to end the enemy’s spell. Mostly this takes me back to playing a Holy priest in WoW and stressing about cleansing effects on my raid while also healing. I was… subpar at this.
Potent Spellcasting tells you that you’re here to play a ranged cleric with cantrips.
Arcane Mastery I mentioned above. It’s pretty impressive – it’s none too difficult to find high-end spells that belong exclusively to the wizard (and sorcerer), and they’d be plenty of fun to toss around as a cleric. Getting them locked in as always prepared gives you a lot more flexibility with your spells-prepared slots, and this is for a class that already has the largest number of spells prepared at a time.
The Arcana domain is a reasonably cogent view of a cleric of the god of magic, with some of the same explicit feature-borrowing, but otherwise very different from the Theurge. The Theurge is better at borrowing cleric spells than the Arcana cleric is at borrowing wizard spells, but the Arcana cleric knows all of the cleric spells of any level she can cast, and that is a big list full of some dead sexy spells. Personally I would play the Theurge over the Arcana cleric, but I can’t point to anything other than liking the word theurge as a reason for that.
The Seeker is interesting, though it could use a little more thematic expression – I’m thinking more of flavor text than alternate mechanics. For a Patron that does so much with the Astral Plane, something is missing there. I’m not sure what.
The Pact of the Star Chain doesn’t define a gameplay style the way a Pact should. I’d like to see something that affects the warlock a lot more often than this does.
The Theurgy Tradition is mostly a tabula rasa waiting for you to slot in a domain. It has no flavor of its own, just a lot of potential to create the most versatile of all spellcasters. My main takeaway: now I want to see them pull the same trick with interleaving mystics and wizards. (No, seriously, good luck combining spell-point and slot-based systems in one multiclassing system.) What I like most is the risk taken in its design. The Seeker doesn’t mesh well with my setting’s cosmology, and I’d need to figure out how the Theurge fit into what I’ve established about the Traditions in my setting, but other than those concerns, I’d allow these as-written.