D&D 5eReviews

UA: A Trio of Subclasses Breakdown

This week’s Unearthed Arcana wasn’t the downtime actions/ways to spend cash post that Mearls has intermittently teased for months now, but that’s okay. Instead, we get three more subclasses – a monastic tradition, an oath, and a ranger archetype – that have no superficial connection, but on closer inspection reveal a through-line that may signal a shift in the D&D 5e metagame. The short version is, do you want to irritate the crap out of the DM? If so, these subclasses are ideal!

The Drunken Master

This subclass is a real-world fighting style, first showing up in D&D back in 3.0’s rushed-to-press Sword & Fist. Just on a tonal level, this subclass is definitely not for all campaigns. But if you’re running classic Jackie Chan action comedy, nothing could be more on-point.

  • Drunken Technique grants proficiency in the Performance skill, and improves your Flurry of Blows by folding in a free Disengage and a 10-ft boost to your walking speed when you flurry. It’s interesting to see a monastic tradition grab something out of Step of the Wind and move it into Flurry of Blows (not just the Disengage, but also a micro-Dash).
    • Whenever you see a free Disengage or a move-without-provoking, you’re looking at a top-flight skirmisher. (Note that the difference between a free Disengage and a move-without-provoking is corner-case, but hinges on interaction with things like the Sentinel feat. A move-without-provoking is basically always better, because Disengage is a formal rules element that other things can hook into, while a move-without-provoking is not.
  • Tipsy Sway lets you turn an attack that misses you – no matter the roll – into an attack that hits another adjacent enemy. We’ve seen redirects like this in a few other places, though I don’t remember if those turned a miss into an auto-hit or not. Importantly, this feature is just 1/short rest.
    • This is one of those features that I expect many DMs find irritating at the table, as it is fundamentally comic and exists to undermine any sense of threat from the opposition. There are plenty of groups where it’s fine and good for the PCs to humiliate the opposition (“don’t get mad at me, your ‘friend’ here is the one that hit you”) in every encounter, and I’m sure my players would hasten to agree that I am a stodgy old so-and-so, but this would irritate me every time it was used.
  • Drunkard’s Luck lets you spend 1 ki to gain advantage on a saving throw. Seems fine.
  • Intoxicated Frenzy adds a fifth attack to your Flurry of Blows rounds, but only if all three of your Flurry attacks are against different targets. I don’t know how easy monks will find it to be adjacent to three or more enemies at a time in high-level play (that same question is the problem of judging the Hunter ranger’s Whirlwind Attack), but when it works, this feature is great. It’s also very much on-theme for the Drunken Master style.

Of the three subclasses here, this is the one I like most, or really dislike least; it has only one feature that is about embarrassing the enemy, and that feature is just one use per short rest. Could be worse. The Drunken Master style is also long on supporting fiction. As long as the Drunken Master doesn’t clash with the tone the DM and other players hope to establish, go for it.


Oath of Redemption

As it happens, I’ve been contemplating a homebrewed Oath of Redemption, but the name is the only similarity – I am more interested in writing an oath about redemption of lost honor than on a vow of peace. Back in December of last year, UA released the Way of Tranquility monk, which gave me a great chance to talk about the complications of pacifism in an otherwise non-pacifist group. Everything I wrote there applies here, though this subclass works very differently – it is great at violence, but sometimes takes a less-than-lethal route. If most paladins have issues with self-righteousness and getting in the way of party goals, though, this one is even worse.

  • I don’t usually go into any detail on the tenets of paladin oaths, but this one is legitimately goodly, if demanding. It’s well-suited to long, character-driven campaigns. It’s also easy to see how it would become completely insufferable.
  • The Redemption spells are a mix of great defenses and fight-stopping spells… though I have to point out that several of those fight-stopping spells are great for making your next attack(s) automatic critical hits.
  • Armor of Peace gets you out of wearing armor or carrying a shield. Your AC is 16 + your Dexterity modifier. Pushing a Dex-focused paladin is interesting, though it intersects badly with the next feature.
  • Warrior of Reconciliation requires a simple bludgeoning weapon. Note that there are no simple finesse bludgeoning weapons, so you’ll need Strength as well as Dex to make this subclass work well. Anyway, when you reduce a creature to 0 hit points, you can keep it conscious but charmed (no saving throw) for 1 minute. This should be great for getting information out of “downed” enemies in a fight. If you don’t want them to be unconscious and dying afterward, you should probably save a few points of Lay on Hands to heal them.
    • As one of my players has recently pointed out to me, features that require you to get the last hit on a creature to gain a benefit from it are awkward, because your other party members will forever be inadvertently griefing you.
    • If you’re good with charming a target for a minute, interrogating them with the benefits of the charm (that is, advantage on Charisma checks), and then killing them or letting your allies do so, I’m really doubting your commitment to Sparkle Motion.
    • The key to this design is that the paladin is encouraged to deal damage and get enemies to 0 hit points just like everyone else in the group, in contrast with the Way of Tranquility’s Douse the Flames of War feature. On the other hand, beating people over the head until they turn friendly feels very much like a hacky mission brain from an MMO. In 5e, it sounds a bit awkward.
    • Pro tip for Redeemers: Ignore this feature, use a martial finesse weapon, and you no longer need Strength for anything at all.
  • Channel Divinity has two options for the Redeemer paladin.
    • Emissary of Peace was the name of a Way of Tranquility feature. In this implementation, your Channel Divinity becomes a +5 bonus to one Charisma (Persuasion) check made in the next minute. I have questions about how obvious your use of this channeling should be, and if it is obvious, why creatures don’t react badly afterward as they automagically do to a friends (I have serious problems with the friends cantrip.)
    • Rebuke the Violent lets you reflect damage that enemies deal to nearby allies. It reflects either full damage or half damage, depending on their saving throw. This is the jumping-off point for punishing every action the enemy takes – sure, it’s limited by your Channel Divinity uses and only works on damage dealt with melee attacks, but we haven’t gotten out of 3rd level yet.
  • Aura of the Guardian (because it wouldn’t be a paladin subclass without an Aura feature at 7th level) lets the paladin transfer damage from allies to themselves. This plugs into the next two features in big ways. Well, I think it plugs in, there’s some room for interpretation here. This and Rebuke the Violent both use a reaction, so they don’t work together.
  • Protective Spirit gives you an auto-heal while you are bloodied (We all understand bloodied, right?) and not incapacitated. 1d6 + half your paladin level per round is only enough to take the edge off of your need for healing, probably, though with your AC from Armor of Peace, probably a lot of your incoming damage is from Aura of the Guardian.
    • The playstyle that Aura of the Guardian starts to lay out comes to fruition here: you’re the most amazing backpack healer ever, because you shift damage to yourself and heal through. As long as you have a really solid Concentration saving throw, add some aura of vitality to this as a place to dump your bonus action.
  • Emissary of Redemption is the Redeemer’s 20th-level feature. With most Oaths, this feature is a big, flashy transformation with a duration of 1 minute or 1 hour. Not so here: this feature is always on, though you “turn it off” for individual enemies when you attack them, deal them damage, or force them to roll a saving throw. This limitation hangs on a very technical interpretation of who “deals” damage.
    • I’ve inverted the order of explanation here, but for all creatures that this feature applies to, you have resistance to all damage they deal, and when the creature damages you, it takes damage equal to half the damage it dealt to you.
    • The trick, then, is that no one is “dealing” that retributive damage, because otherwise this feature would turn itself off after any creature attacked you once. (I mean, I assume that’s not intended.)
    • The other thing going on is that Aura of the Guardian’s damage transfer might or might not constitute a creature damaging you. Does transferred damage still carry its original creature source?
    • In any case, this feature is insanely abusive. Regardless of whether Aura of the Guardian feeds into this, the Redeemer is here to go toe-to-toe with bosses and ignore minions – the minions should kill themselves on what amounts to a damage shield. The paladin, in turn, is going to go through a lot of healing, but… who cares, every point of healing that goes into the paladin is getting fed back as damage output, except for damage from the boss. For the boss, you’re going for hold monster and a bunch of auto-critting smites.

There are two fundamental party roles going on here, then: primary defender or primary healer. You’re not the very greatest at healing, say, a whole party that has been blasted with fireballs or dragonfire, but you can heal another character of steady damage for cheap-as-free, for a long time. I’m more or less okay with the healing-focused approach, because while it’s super effective, it doesn’t emphasize enemies keeling over for having the temerity to attack you or your allies – that’s the part that really bugs me.

The class could also use a rewrite for clarity, possibly with explicit callouts of which features work together and which features do not. It’s satisfying to discover powerful combinations, if you’re into that sort of thing, but at this point 5e is complex enough that a collection of sidebars with “yes, this is intended” and “no, this doesn’t work, and here’s why” would be phenomenally useful. It would also save Jeremy Crawford a lot of work in his Twitter feed. This may or may not be a desired outcome.


Monster Slayer Archetype

The Conclave of the Slayer is apparently the one that’s really about killing evil magical monsters, not like all those other rangers. (?! Seriously, someone just let slip that Hunters don’t have any uniting theme.) The one paragraph of flavor text reads as the Better Than Your Stupid Subclass Conclave. Marsupialmancer has suggested that this reads to him as The Witcher, and as I have neither played those games nor read those books, despite Marsupialmancer lending them to me, I am taking his word for it.

  • Slayer’s Mysticism lifts a trick from the Deep Stalker, and teaches new spells at 3rd, 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th. It’s about as abjuration-friendly as it could be.
  • Slayer’s Eye is the damage kicker of hunter’s mark, without Concentration, and with a bunch of information-gathering. Much like the 4e hunter’s mark, this feature isn’t magical and you can use it as many times as you want, but its benefit only works on one creature at a time.
    • It has no stated interaction with magical disguises. I’m going to suggest that spending one bonus action per creature to scan a crowd for, say, vampires or whatever is going to wreck some storylines big-time. Unless you want to tell me that the Vampire Weaknesses feature is, technically, not a vulnerability, and thus isn’t revealed. (That is the kind of ruling that makes people not trust DMs, and violates the shit out of this feature’s and archetype’s theme.)
  • Extra Attack, if you’re one of the New Hotness Variant Rangers.
  • Supernatural Defense adds your Slayer’s Eye d6 to saving throws the targeted creature forces you to make.
  • Relentless Slayer recognizes that most monsters with a lot of magic going on have some kind of escape power, and it gives you a chance to negate that with a contested Wisdom check.
    • Of course, this ignores the fact that fantasy games of all stripes have been giving enemies those kinds of features since time immemorial for some highly valid narrative reasons – like “the game is cooler if you get to fight the enemy once, force them to flee, and then do it again later in the actual sanctum.” What I’m saying is, this breaches a time-honored element that a lot of published adventures have relied on over the years for drama. D&D doesn’t have a clause for “your powers don’t work because it wrecks the drama” – instead, we try not to hand out those powers, or we justify shutting them off because of something in the fiction.
    • Beyond that, I am opposed to this feature because it just negates the NPC’s action, as many times as you can win that contested Wisdom check. It really hangs the NPC out to dry by making their dramatic moment fizzle, and that breaks the shit out of the mood.
    • It also means that a vampire using Misty Escape that loses that Wisdom roll is instantly destroyed – “if it can’t transform, it is destroyed.”
  • Slayer’s Counter functionally gives you a pre-saving-throw that is actually an attack roll. If your attack hits, congratulations, you passed your save! If it doesn’t, you still roll your saving throw with that extra d6. Especially with features like a vampire’s Charm action, the Monster Slayer functionally gets a free attack that can also negate the creature’s action. So yeah, I think this feature is a serious mistake and makes it all but impossible to maintain any credibility for classic big bads.

Monster Slayer is, in brief, here to always be cooler than the big bad. It doesn’t provide epic duels with the big bad – it just blocks off anything other than pure damage or swarms of minions that could possibly be effective. I think this badly overshadows other PCs at the table, to say nothing of being wildly better than any other ranger Conclave.

In conclusion, this set of subclasses introduces new features that consistently trump the actions and intentions of NPC threats, whether through negation or redirection. This is power creep, plain and simple, but what I’m hearing from other 5e DMs is that they’re already having a hard time mounting challenges to the PCs while working within the existing guidelines. Volo’s Guide to Monsters does perceptibly advance the relative powers of the NPCs, but the Redeemer and the Monster Slayer go substantially too far with PC power. The Drunken Master is… probably okay, if not the tone for every game.

I should say this just about every time, but I want to thank Colin and Marsupialmancer for talking the Unearthed Arcana documents out with me, week after week. Their wisdom is the greater part of the insight that I write into these breakdowns. Oversights, however, I claim as mine alone.