D&D 5eReviews

UA: Revised Subclasses Breakdown

This, my friends, is the first week of the rest of our lives. (I mean, that’s never not true.) We’ve left the weekly UA schedule and returned to the monthly, but naturally it’s the first of a new month, so here we are with revised subclasses, and with WotC showing a little more of their work in iterative development. The Ancestor barbarian, Swords bard, Arcane Archer fighter, Kensei monk, and Favored Soul sorcerer all get another pass.

Path of the Ancestral Guardian

The theme here hasn’t changed one bit, but there’s a lot of tweaking to the action economy.

  • Ancestral Protectors no longer requires a bonus action, but automagically takes effect on the first target that you hit on your turn, and lasts until the start of your next turn, or until the rage ends. Instead of slowing targets that Disengage, a creature your ancestors are bothering finds that any target but you has resistance to its attacks, on top of the disadvantage on the attack roll that they already had. (And, well, you’re still a barbarian, so if it’s bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, you have resistance too! Sweet.)
    • There’s no explicit handling for what happens if there are two Ancestral Guardian barbarians in a party together attacking the same target, the way there is with the Sentinel feat. Still, this is a solid change by any reasonable measure, fixing the serious action economy issues of the original and staying more on theme. I’m a little concerned about just how good of a marking power (to use the 4e terminology) this is, though it does nothing at all if you’re fighting someone who forces saving throws rather than making attacks.
  • Ancestral Shield became Spirit Shield, and grants a random (2d8, 3d8, or 4d8, scaling by level) damage reduction rather than resistance. It still costs your reaction, but it doesn’t also involve sacrificing your resistance to protect your ally.
    • This may be stopping an excessively high percentage of damage in some solitary boss fights; even worse if it’s stacked with the resistance of Ancestral Protectors. It’s a very convincing requirement that the enemy kill the tank before moving on. It doesn’t scale in any regard with an increasing number of enemies on the field, though. As with Ancestral Protectors, I’m intrigued and would like to see it in action for awhile. My campaign has two barbarian PCs right now, one an Eagle Totem and one a homebrewed subclass called Demon-scarred, so I’m getting a lot of chances to see how small differences in features and approach to combat play out.
  • Consult the Spirits switched from a largely-useless advantage on some Int and Wis checks (which many barbarians still wouldn’t be able to pass) to a per-short-rest clairvoyance You don’t see a long of melee brute classes and subclasses getting magical scouting effects, but this one tells its story really well. Great change here.
  • Vengeful Ancestors switched from a reaction that made you choose between a tiny bit of retributive damage or using Ancestral Shield to now automatically dealing retributive damage whenever Spirit Shield does its thing. This is really, really powerful, but other than some mild questions about tuning the damage mitigation and reflection values, it’s a great change.

By the time you get this feature, the Ancestral Guardian barbarian is playing like a 4e shielding swordmage that forgot how to teleport, which is still outlandishly powerful. To be fair, though, the barbarian Paths of the Player’s Handbook are heavy hitters, so Ancestral Guardian needs to do a lot just to keep up. It’s far more field-ready than the first draft, and it makes the barbarian’s player think a bit harder about target selection than normal. After all, once you have Spirit Shield, you want enemies to attack your buddies… just weaker enemies, please, ones that might see all of their damage output wiped away with a few d8s. The barbarian class overall needs more tactical engagement, so I’m keen to see this play out.


College of Swords

This one takes us back to Kits of Old, and makes some changes to a highly technical area of 5e parlance.

  • Bonus Proficiencies are mostly unchanged, except that the bard also gains the ability to use any melee weapon they’re proficient with as a spellcasting focus. It’s hard to imagine a bard that would seriously pursue this College, but also prefer Strength and medium armor over Dex and light armor, unless their main attack stat is 14 or less. To be fair, I’ve seen that happen in other classes.
  • Fighting Style now allows the bard to choose either Duelist or Two-Weapon Fighting, rather than simply assigning the latter. As I’m about to explain, Two-Weapon Fighting is simply an incorrect choice.
  • Blade Flourish is no longer part of an Attack action. It is its own kind of action: a Blade Flourish action. A Blade Flourish action lets you make one attack, increase your speed by 10, and spend Bardic Inspiration on one of three options. (When you run out of Bardic Inspiration dice, you can keep using Blade Flourish for the speed boost and, eventually, an extra attack.) Notably, the original Blade Flourish went out of its way to support ranged attacks; this one specifically bars them.
    • This is a huge deal, and confirmed in Jeremy Crawford’s tweets. Two-Weapon Fighting (Player’s Handbook, p. 195) only works when you take the Attack action. This means that your core subclass function locks out TWF. Sure, you could Attack normally and use Two-Weapon Fighting… but that looks like a dodgy idea right out the gate, and gets a lot worse in just a minute.
    • Of your three Flourishes, the first is unchanged (add your Bardic Inspiration die to AC), the second is just weird (attack a target, and if you hit, ignore your weapon damage and ability modifiers. Instead, splash your Bardic Inspiration die result on every target but your main target within 5 feet of you), and a push that moves your target a number of feet that is probably not divisible by 5, but also lets you spend your reaction to follow them. The second Flourish has its place if you’re ever surrounded, but its effect doesn’t make a ton of sense for what’s going on. The third Flourish needs to at least suggest a handling for what happens when you push someone less than one full space.
  • Cunning Flourish replaces Extra Attack, and only works when you make a Blade Flourish attack. At this point, a Dueling blade is in every way better than a Two-Weapon Fighting blade, including not needing to spend a bonus action. You still can’t use your Flourishes more than once per turn.
  • Master’s Flourish replaces the bog-standard Battle Magic of the original. When you don’t spend a Bardic Inspiration die but still want to do something fancy and possibly also schmantzy, you always have a d6 to fall back on. Worth using for Defensive Flourish, pretty much a waste of time for Slashing Flourish (unless they intend for your original weapon die to still damage the initial target… which you’d have to bend our poor language around pretty far to get out of that rules text), and just a free 5-ft push that sometimes becomes a 10-ft push for Mobile Flourish.
    • As Colin has pointed out to me, the Valor bard already has some issues around being a full-progression caster that wants to be swinging weapons. This leaves them without a lot of chances to use both sides of their power set until they pick up Battle Magic at 14th. Without that, the College of Swords is trying to use a fighter’s gameplay loop, and getting much less throughput out of all those spells. Leaving your bonus action open for healing word spam is another great reason for blades to favor Dueling over TWF.

This subclass is simply terrible. You’re much better off trying to do more or less the same thing with the College of Valor. It may be a bit of going around your elbow to get to your nose, but this is just a mess. I’m also sorely disappointed that they’ve cut all support for knife-throwing blades – that’s thematically central to the original kit as well as the flavor text in the document.


Arcane Archer Archetype

This one gets a pretty deep revamp.

  • Arcane Arrow has been retooled into Magic Arrow and Arcane Shot. Magic Arrow makes all of your arrows fired from a shortbow or longbow magical +1 arrows. Which is fine, even if it means that this feature gets overwritten if you ever get a +whatever bow. It also means you have a freebie +1 to hit until that happy day. Arcane Shot no longer dishes out plain force damage, but you still get two uses of your Arcane Shot options per short rest, learn two types of Arcane Shots, and unlock more as you go (eventually gaining 6 out of 8).
    • This change amounts to an action economy fix, since the 2d6 force damage got farmed out and retyped in each individual shot. It’s not the main design goal, but this also happens to be a far clearer way to store this information in the rules.
    • EDIT: Yeah, so, I was super-duper wrong about this, as Jeremy Crawford has clarified in Sage Advice. Your +whatever bow stacks with your +1 arrows just fine. I… basically get why this ruling is here, and it’s harder to mass-enchant arrows than it is in 3.x, but it’s still thumbing its nose at bounded accuracy by double-dipping on attack bonuses.
  • Arcane Archer’s Lore got narrowed way down to just one of Arcana or Nature. I’m not sure why this was important, but the original made you a pretty broad skill machine.
  • You are no longer a conjuror of arrows or cheap tricks; now you can turn a miss into a Curving Shot in mid-flight to target someone else, for the low low cost of a bonus action. Presumably this would determine cover from the location of the person you missed, letting you fire around corners.
  • Ever-Ready Arrow’s one-minute timer is gone, replaced with Ever-Ready Shot that works a lot more like the Battle Master’s Relentless feature. That is, it’s triggered by rolling initiative. Relatively speaking, one Arcane Shot is worth more than one Combat Superiority die, but sure.
  • Deadly Arrow is gone, and now all of your Arcane Shots improve a little at 18th level (but there’s no specific feature name).
  • There are a lot of little tweaks to the Arcane Shots.
    • Beguiling Arrow is now Mind-Scrambling Arrow. It carries a 2d6 psychic damage kicker and is no longer stopped by charm immunity.
    • Brute-Bane Arrow now deals 2d6 necrotic damage, and is otherwise the same.
    • Bursting Arrow just got rephrased to clarify the 2d6 damage. It’s still force damage. It now scales to 4d6 appropriately at 18th
    • The underwhelming Defending Arrow is now Banishing Arrow. The baseline Banishing Arrow doesn’t get a 2d6 damage kicker, because it’s some serious (if short-term) crowd control. Only at 18th level does it go up to 2d6 extra damage. Anyway, if the arrow hits and the target fails a Cha save, it’s banished to the Feywild for a bit. Way more impressive!
    • Grasping Arrow stayed mostly the same, except that the Strength DC to get out is now based on your Arcane Shot save DC, and you can’t have two Grasping Arrows out at the same time. Good change.
    • Piercing Arrow no longer uses attack rolls, but turns your arrow into a line AoE that forces a Dex save, and deals your weapon damage +1d6 on a failed save, or half on a success. It also now ignores cover entirely, which it should, based on the expressed theme. Good change.
    • Seeking Arrow works mostly the same, but it’s now a Dex save rather than an attack roll, and it can be fired as part of any old shot rather than requiring its own action to use. The first part is nice because, by the shot’s concept, armor probably shouldn’t help; the second part is a needed fix.
    • Shadow Arrow now reduces your target’s range of vision to 5 feet rather than 30 feet on a failed save, and deals psychic damage. It’s more useful, but with a secondary chance to be resisted.

Overall, I would say that the changes to the Arcane Archer are great improvements. I’m not thrilled about the Magic Arrow feature, but then a lot of strike-as-magic features get outdated in the course of play. I’m not sure why Magic Arrow doesn’t just, you know, make the arrows strike as magic, rather than also granting +1 to attack and damage, but there it is. Considering how much clearer and more useful the rest of the subclass is, I won’t pitch a fit over it.


Way of the Kensei

The earlier Kensei earned some harsh words for being deeply confusing and requiring a J.D. in D&D’s formal rules language just to understand what should happen. (Note to WotC: if you know you have something a bit dense to explain, it really is okay to present examples. You could save yourself a lot of grief this way, I think.)

  • Path of the Kensei got taken down to studs, which is good because it was the source of all the issues.
    • The first bullet of the feature now grants proficiency in one melee and one ranged weapon, gradually scaling to four melee and four ranged weapons. These weapons also become kensei weapons for you, and all kensei weapons are monk weapons. Weapons with the Heavy or Special tags are specifically locked out, while the longbow is explicitly allowed. It’s weird that they would lock out glaives, as the most obvious cognates of naginatas… a weapon that history and D&D put into the hands of sōhei. Blocking off the greatsword is the most obvious aim here – the largest blade they want you using is a longsword, which of course you wield in its Versatile form. Keep in mind that the Martial Arts feature lets you use all monk weapons with Dexterity instead of Strength.
    • If you make an unarmed attack while holding a melee kensei weapon, you gain +2 AC. This part is unchanged from before.
    • There was a +1d4 damage kicker before, as part of a bonus action. It didn’t make any sense, so now there’s a +1d4 damage kicker as part of a bonus action that only applies to ranged weapons. It’s interesting how far out of their way they’re going to support Zen archery monks. Anyway, the new version is much clearer.
  • One with the Blade still consists of Magic Weapons (essentially unchanged) and Precise Strike. Precise Strike is now largely a misnomer, at least in the sense that D&D usually uses the word precise (eg., the Battle Master’s Precision Attack), as it now lets you burn ki for extra damage die when you hit a target. Compared to the previous version that made the decision tree for your bonus action horrifically complicated and competed with Path of the Kensei, this is a good change.
  • Sharpen the Blade is unchanged except to note that it only works on kensei weapons. It still takes a bonus action that is part of revving up for a fight. I’m… actually not 100% sure if this stacks with +whatever bonuses from just having a magic weapon. It’s obvious enough that bounded accuracy wants the answer to be a firm No, but it would not be the most surprising thing to see a Yes ruling here.
  • Unerring Accuracy got rephrased, with no change to function.

Overall, Nu!Kensei is infinitely clearer in its function than the earlier one. It’s also a good bit more restrictive; unsurprisingly there’s rhetoric about how no Heavy weapons means that WotC hates kitties and puppies and joy. I’m great with blocking off the path to Dex-wielded greatswords, personally. That was always the ultra-risky design choice of the first version. Beyond the greatsword-qua-greatsword, this is about blocking off Great Weapon Master and the reach applications of Polearm Master. I think my one remaining complaint about the Kensei and most monk subclasses is that there’s no support at all for the exploration and interaction pillars – they are purely combat-focused. That seems a wasted opportunity.


Favored Soul Origin

This is the, uh, third iteration(?) of the Favored Soul, which tells us that it is the perfect intersection of fan interest and designer interest. It also means we have more points on its trendline than any other UA playtest material. The most important thing here is that Favored Souls got their wings back. Attaboy, Clarence.

That’s right, an It’s a Wonderful Life reference.

Because that’s how I roll.

  • Divine Magic got just one change, but it’s a good one. (The feature was nearly perfect before, but it’s the crux of the Favored Soul-as-sorcerer concept and not actually complicated.) Now you learn cure wounds for free, which is great because you skip the tax associated with the most obvious and gameplay-changing thing for the Favored Soul to want. I also would have accepted healing word, but the sorcerer can pick up Distant Spell to cover that base if they want.
  • Supernatural Resilience went away. It didn’t have a strong hold on the core concept anyway.
  • Favored by the Gods stuck around unchanged. 2d4 is a big boost for a save or attack roll, but I accept it as an expression of that whole Favored This is a solid Chosen of Mystara subclass for Forgotten Realms at this point, and that’s fascinating all by itself. (Underpowered compared to what we see of the Chosen in the text, but ffs, let the PCs be the important ones.)
  • Empowered Healing remembers that this is a sorcerer subclass and the sorcerer has their own toys to play with. This is the Empowered Spell metamagic, but for healing. I’m sure there are people out there complaining that this pushes their Favored Soul toward healing when they really just wanted bless and spirit guardians, but that was never WotC’s design goal.
  • Divine Purity died a lonely and unmourned death, as befits all PC immunities.
  • Angelic Form is the new version of Blessed Countenance, kicked from 6th to 14th It still changes your appearance to beautiful, youthful, kind, or imposing, though that no longer has any mechanical underpinning. It also gives you a can of Red Bull, which you drink as a bonus action. Drinking Red Bull Flying with angel wings was a core part of the 3.x Favored Soul, so I’m glad to see it here.
  • Unearthly Recovery is unchanged.

Honestly, I think this version of the Favored Soul is ready to go into official text. The gameplay here looks like a fun balance of exploding things and healing things, like a remixed Light domain cleric with metamagic. Watching the twists and turns of the Favored Soul’s path to this point should reassure everyone who loves the concept of any piece of UA content, but finds fault with implementation. Just as with D&D Next, they seem to get things almost deliberately wrong in the second draft, but the final tends to be a solid piece of work – miraculously, without feeling over-engineered. In this way the College of Swords may yet become something playable. For the document as a whole, I see four hits and one miss, which even Rogers Hornsby thinks is a pretty solid batting average. (Ty Cobb could not be reached for comment.)

Next week, I should be back to publishing my articles on Thursdays for a bit. I’ll be continuing with design critique, as I’ve been asked to get into the guts of a third-party-published class and give commentary.