Unearthed Arcana: Martial Archetypes Breakdown
This week in Unearthed Arcana, Affleck & Damon present four new fighter archetypes: the Arcane Archer, the Knight, the Samurai, and the Sharpshooter. To talk about them, though, let’s first step back and talk about how the Player’s Handbook fighter archetypes are imagined on a different axis than any other set of subclasses. This has informed later subclass designs, and it makes today’s UA a challenging contrast.
The Player’s Handbook Fighter
I had been hoping to save this conversation for an eventual “History of the Fighter Class” series, but instead, I’m doing it today. Now, I can’t honestly say that each class’s archetypes have an identical level of complexity – compare the barbarian’s two and the monk’s three – but only in the fighter class is there such a yawning gulf of difference. Nor do other classes intentionally strip their archetypes of setting context, as the Champion and Battle Master have been. There are features in each that aren’t explicitly about weapon-induced murder, but even those don’t do a lot to communicate theme. It’s possible to draw the impression that the Champion is the more resilient brute, trained in the School of Hard Knocks, while the Battle Master is the refined, formally-trained warrior poet (or other form of artistic expression), but even that is reaching.
The thing is, the fighter is the most universal archetype in all of fiction, to say nothing of fantasy fiction. The original fighting-man class is even more devoid of features – the perfect tabula rasa for any hero who accomplishes deeds through physical prowess rather than magic (because there was no thief class at the time). Much as D&D has long defined races by their difference from humans, other classes seem defined by their separation from the fighting-man. Eventually, I’ll map that statement forward in detail, but 3.x has to be the high-water mark of “fighter as tabula rasa” – just look at all those bonus feats, and the wide-open “yes you can” of proficiency in all simple and martial weapons, armor, and shields.
It’s tough to pull together a class from Beowulf, Buliwyf, Conan (what class is Conan? Barbarian, ranger, rogue, fighter… yes to all), d’Artagnan, John McClane, Joan of Arc, William the Marshal, William Wallace, William Tell, William the Conqueror, Bill the Butcher, Lancelot, Miyamoto Musashi, Captain America, Lyudmila Pavlichenko… and so on. D&D has tried breaking these out into more classes, so the design can drill down into greater detail, which is how you get the paladin, ranger, barbarian, monk, and rogue.
Those classes in turn take on lives and themes of their own, as you now know if you’re thinking about arguing with my list of famous fighters and which class they should be. What do you do if you want to play a knight but don’t want the thematic weight of an Oath or the gameplay of smites, channeling, and spellcasting? You probably choose fighter, and if you’re playing 5e, maybe you start looking for a cleaner fit for your concept than Champion, Battle Master, or Eldritch Knight have to offer. After all, you did this to avoid spellcasting, so EK is out, and Champion and Battle Master were deliberately stripped of thematic weight.
And that, little UA article, is how you were born.
As far as I know, the lineage of the Arcane Archer is, approximately:
- Mortimer Weisinger and George Pepp create Green Arrow in 1941. He has trick arrows.
- Lucion Paul Gygax creates Melf, presumably in the early 1970s, and Melf creates Melf’s acid arrow and Melf’s unicorn arrow.
- 3.0/3.5 Arcane Archer prestige class (elf and half-elf only)
- Not checking my books right now, but I’m pretty sure there were 4e paragon paths for an Arcane Archer concept.
- 4e seeker class, in the Player’s Handbook III. Little bit of a stretch here, but… yeah.
- During the D&D Next public playtest, a few Themes/Specialties/feats that could move a character in this direction.
- A whole lot of players looking at the Eldritch Knight and the Blade-pact warlock, and trying to figure out the best way to use them for this task. The EK can do it if you really squint, but the better bet is a bow-wielding ranger. Conspicuously, the Spell Sniper feat is not about this.
- This UA document.
The flavor text for the Arcane Archer calls out its old elves-only requirement, but there’s no mechanics-side acknowledgement of it. That’s marginally better than a ton of people trying to figure out how to be the exception, sort of like all the people who want to play drow without Sunlight Sensitivity. Anyway.
- Arcane Arrow is actually two features, Create Magic Arrow and Arcane Shot.
- Create Magic Arrow lets you spend a bonus action to add 2d6 force damage to an attack before the end of the turn, but you have to decide which shot is the magic arrow before you roll. You get two of these per short rest.
- Arcane Shot lets you fold additional effects into your magic arrow, chosen from a list. I’ll get to that in a bit. The important point is that this spends out of the same “two per short rest” currency pool, and that you start with two options from the list and end with six.
- Archer’s Lore carries some of that elvish theme, granting you two skill proficiencies from the fairly elfy list of Arcana, Athletics, Nature, Perception, Stealth, and Survival.
- Conjure Arrows does what it says on the tin – you spend an action and conjure 20 arrows that last for up to 10 minutes.
- This is important for an archetype that is wholly dependent on ammunition, but you never want this to be your mainstay – at 7th level when you gain this feature, you’re already burning through 2-4 arrows per round, and that only gets faster as you go. The idea of spending one turn in every 3-5 rounds just making new arrows should be enough to get you to keep a supply of conventional arrows.
- Ever-Ready Arrow is the Arcane Archer’s answer to Relentless, for those times when you just can’t seem to buy a short rest. The weird thing is that it’s on a one-minute timer, rather than “when you roll initiative and have no superiority dice remaining.” I’m not really sure why they did that, but I don’t think I’m a fan of implicitly asking players to track 10 combat rounds.
- Deadly Arrow boosts your Create Magic Arrow damage buff to 4d6 force damage, because 2d6 is pretty underwhelming when you’re looking at 4-8 attacks in a round.
- Now for all the Arcane Shot options.
- Beguiling Arrow lets you kinda-sorta make your target charmed to one of your allies. Interesting that there’s no saving throw going on here. Anyway, this is functionally a short-term detaunt, but depending on positioning it might screw your opponent’s plan really
- Brute Bane Arrow halves your target’s bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage until the end of your next turn. Don’t care for the name (Enfeebling would have been my choice), but otherwise this is fine. It’s also a more appealing implementation of its concept than ray of enfeeblement, since it doesn’t require you to think about whether a creature is using Strength or Dex for its attacks.
- Bursting Arrow is the classic AoE damage arrow. You have to hit a creature for the arrow to explode (in D&D terms, this is a pretty good safety feature!), and it deals 2d6 force damage to each creature within 10 feet of that target.
- Defending Arrow says that it’s about disrupting your enemy’s magic, but that’s not what its mechanics do, unless you know in advance that your target is going to make a spell attack roll (as most spells don’t). Anyway, it imposes disadvantage on your target’s next attack roll. This is seriously substandard – it’s like the Protection fighting style, but worse!
- Grasping Arrow is a damaging snare effect, more or less an arrow version of spike stones or entangling strike. Gave that archer a snare. Archers love snares.
- Piercing Arrow is one of those features that literally every archery hero in a video game gets – arrow goes through the target and hits the next dude! And that is exactly what this does, to a maximum range of 30 ft.
- Seeking Arrow shoots around corners and ignores cover up to total cover that isn’t 100% encasement. The way they parse the rules for this is a nice piece of technical writing. Anyway, this is a feature you’d absolutely expect.
- Shadow Arrow limits the range of your target’s vision to 30 feet, which is an interesting fog-of-war effect to impose on an enemy.
You’ll notice that there was one arcane shot for each of the eight Traditions. That’s a neat approach, though I suspect that many Arcane Archers would be interested in a few more evocation options. Overall, this is probably my favorite of the four archetypes presented here. I’m surprised the number of uses per short rest never scales up, since the comparison between Create Magic Arrow uses and Combat Superiority dice more or less writes itself (and you can buy more CS dice with feats). This archetype offers mechanics that you can indirectly spoof with other classes, possibly multiclassing along the way, but this does it cleanly and clearly. I’d be curious to see how it stacked up in long-term use. If you miss the 4e seeker, you need a good way to play Oliver Queen, or you want to play a more different concept of elven “knight,” this is the place to be.
This archetype is one that they’ve covered before, with the Cavalier in “Kits of Old.” The first version was built on Combat Superiority dice, with a blend of maneuvers available to the Battle Master and new maneuvers. There’s a lot of room to debate whether building a bunch of archetypes on the Battle Master’s schtick is a Good Thing or a Bad. Ultimately I retreat to the position that no single design decision is good or bad – it just depends on how it connects to everything else. In context, then, I would like to see a freestanding class that uses Combat Superiority dice, and gains most of its maneuvers based on its subclass. I’d like to propose a couple of names for this class, such as Otherfighter. No? How about the Alt-Fight? (But then we’d have to call them Dice Supremacy.)
…moving on, as I lose all of my non-American readers completely…
- Born to the Saddle is a handful of riding tricks. They won’t come up that often if the campaign isn’t specifically designed for it, but this is close to being a ribbon feature.
- Implacable Mark is the playstyle-defining feature. Congratulations, you have a little bit of 4e-style fighter marking.
- The weird thing is that the free attacks you make against people that violate your mark are limited – three per short rest. You make these attacks with advantage, and add your fighter level to the damage. But! You can still mark people even when you’re out of mark attacks – they still take disadvantage when you mark them, you just can’t do anything about it if they decide to hit your friends or run off.
- Combined with Sentinel, this makes you interrupt the DM a lot, since a creature that is marked and leaves your reach or makes an attack against one of your allies gets hit twice, and you’re beating the snot out of them when you land a hit. This sounds really good, but depending on the DM, may prove extraordinarily unfun for anyone else who wants a turn.
- Noble Cavalry is, much like Archer’s Lore, Remarkable Athlete, and Student of War, a patch on the fighter’s very limited skill list – in this case, with two of Animal Handling, History, Insight, Persuasion, Religion, or a language of your choice.
- It should have been obvious all along, but this means that most fighter archetypes give you most of a second Background at either 3rd or 7th Huh. It’s not just fighter archetypes that do this, but it’s a lot more common in fighter archetypes than elsewhere.
- Hold the Line is the first two features of Sentinel, and a damage boost to such attacks equal to half your fighter level.
- This is the point at which this archetype is kind of… odd, not unnecessary but about halfway redundant, if your campaign uses feats, but freaking awesome if you’re in that probably very small Venn diagram of campaigns that don’t use feats but do use UA content. (Unscientific poll: if this is includes you, please drop me a line in the comments.)
- Rapid Strike lets you “split” an attack with advantage into two attacks, by spending your bonus action.
- This seems like an odd inclusion – the rest of the archetype has been about aggressive defense and kicking out lots of damage in your off-turn, while this is about kicking your enemy while he’s down (literally, since prone enemies are one of the great sources of advantage). Other than the simple need for more damage output at 15th level, I don’t know why this is here.
- Defender’s Blade is another big feature – you functionally could make as many opportunity attacks as there are turns in a round other than your own, though enemies aren’t likely to provoke opportunity attacks on your allies’ turns. Also, you gain +1 to AC while wearing heavy armor.
- Did I say before that you would be interrupting the DM a lot? I had no idea how intense that would get. But hey, I see why people wanted to use guns to murder knights. Once you’re in melee with these guys, you’re not leaving.
Overall, my take on the knight is in agreement with my colleague Marsupialmancer: if you’re in a campaign without feats, this is how you play a tank. A campaign with feats doesn’t really need this content, and they should just play a Champion or Battle Master with Sentinel and call it a day. These guys look like they would slow down play immensely. Their stickiness is near absolute, and once this style of defender is in the game, it changes table expectations and monster design. Ultimately, I think this is the kind of subclass you can’t introduce midway through an edition unless you’re ready to deal with its bad effects on player psychology.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Samurai class, subclass, or prestige class in D&D that I liked, so this one is starting with a few strikes against it for me. There’s a sidebar calling out that they’re talking about the “cinematic, heroic” elements of samurai and knights in this document, but… making samurai their own unique thing in a world full of fighters just bugs me. What’s worse, the artistic and contemplative elements of the Battle Master – especially Know Your Enemy – are all about modeling the cinematic Samurai, so this is trying to carve out space that is already well-trodden ground, just as the Knight did.
Now that I have my own copy of the 1e Oriental Adventures (near mint condition! Many thanks to the friend who gave it to me), there will probably be a brief History of the Samurai Class digression as part of the History of the Fighter Class. Apologies in advance to people writing Japanese History papers who come across that series in their Google searches.
Let it not be said that I won’t give it a close look and a fair shake, though.
- Fighting Spirit is a thrice-per-short-rest boost that grants you advantage on all attack rolls and resistance to B/P/S damage until the end of your next turn.
- This could use a little more flavor text to explain why it’s here, but I assume that a kiai shout is an unwritten assumption. This is very powerful overall, but it does lock you out of two-weapon fighting effectively.
- Elegant Courtier is the 7th-level “fighter in social scenes” feature, granting one skill from History, Insight, or Persuasion, and granting advantage on Wisdom or Charisma checks to persuade or please a noble or other high-ranking person. This is basically fine.
- Unbreakable Will grants proficiency in Wisdom saving throws; if you already have that, it instead grants proficiency in either Int or Cha saving throws. Solid and reasonable.
- Rapid Strike shows up again here, with the same effect as the knight.
- Given the effect of Fighting Spirit, though, it’s a damn sight easier to trigger… except that it also uses a bonus action, so each use of Fighting Spirit grants one extra Rapid Strike attack, not two. Anyway, it’s fine, and looks more reasonable to overall balance here.
- Strength Before Death delays incoming damage, makes it immediately your turn, possibly lets you activate new mitigation effects or healing against that damage (Second Wind or Fighting Spirit spring to mind, as does a healing potion), and only applies the incoming damage at the end of your turn. Fortunately, this is just once per long rest, and only does something if you’re screwed anyway. The “bonus turn” terminology here is bound to cause confusion with “bonus action.”
This Samurai subclass doesn’t piss me off, but most of its coolness doesn’t feel specifically Samurai-like to me. I’m surprised there’s no specific support for iaijutu dueling, a discouragement of dual-wielding (I know the history barely supports it at all – I also know that fantasy samurai always fight with both katana and wakizashi), and only minor support for obligation to a feudal lord. I also suspect that it’s underpowered when compared to the Arcane Archer or the Knight, though the extra survivability won’t go to waste.
As people have been noting all over the internet (Dan Dillon, this one’s for you!), it’s probably not good for a subclass to share a name with a popular feat. It’s probably worse when so much of the subclass’s function comes from existing feats. I’ve been talking about how other archetypes in this document are struggling to justify their existence alongside the current Player’s Handbook content? Yeah, this one has it the worst.
- Steady Aim is similar to Fighting Spirit, in that you spend a bonus action to activate it and can use it three times per short rest. It’s a short-term powered-up mode. This lasts only until the end of this turn, though, and grants the second feature of the Sharpshooter feat (ignore half and three-quarters cover), and has a damage kicker without an attack penalty. The damage bonus starts at +3, growing to +12 by 20th
- This is basically fine, but stacking this with the Sharpshooter feat gets stupidly egregious. Getting that +12 damage kicker eight times in a round at high level seems a bit much.
- Careful Eyes reminds us that the Sharpshooter is a rebuild of the Scout archetype, from Kits of Old (linked above). You can use the Search action as a bonus action, and you gain proficiency in one of Perception, Investigation, or Survival.
- I like that this isn’t about spiking your skill check numbers higher than a ranger could ever hope to go.
- Close-Quarters Shooting is that scene with Legolas at Parth Galen, at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, where he’s shooting people while in melee. It grants the second feature of Crossbow Expert, and denies reactions to creatures that you shoot within 5 feet – so basically a free Disengage if you want it.
- This certainly meets my personal bar for “cinematic.” It’s fine, except that you no longer have much reason to move at all in combat.
- Rapid Strike does what Rapid Strike does, and strikes rapidly.
- Snap Shot grants an extra ranged weapon attack when you use the Attack action on your first turn of a combat.
- At first blush, I thought this was fine. It bothers me, though, because it puts a lot more emphasis on the moment that the DM calls for initiative rolls; specifically, if you roll initiative but have to keep moving to get into line of sight, this feature fails for a very metagame reason. Picking the right moment for the initiative smash-cut (so as not to screw characters over) is not something we customarily expect of DMs. I say this as someone who has designed plenty of “when you roll initiative, [thing] happens” features and magic items.
This archetype is pretty good on the cinematic-action side, and harder to judge on the balance side. It probably won’t frustrate the rest of the table, unless the damage boost from Steady Aim makes the Sharpshooter just outshine everyone else at the table. A lot of the feats you’d expect to want as an archer have already been looted for features, or will be in a later archetype feature, so you may have a lot more spare ASIs than other fighters. Anything that cuts down on people buying Crossbow Expert just for its second feature is a good thing in my book, though.
The Arcane Archer remains the highlight of this playtest document, to my eyes. It does the most memorable and distinctive things, supporting a concept that nothing else quite nails up to this point in 5e. The rest of the archetypes I could do without – the Knight has a complicated effect on the metagame that I think is mostly bad, the Samurai is thin on flavor notes and probably underpowered, and the Sharpshooter is fine but forgettable.