Plane Shift: Ixalan Breakdown
Last week, just as January’s Unearthed Arcana dropped, we also got a new Plane Shift from James Wyatt titled Plane Shift: Ixalan. Now, I come in knowing precisely nothing about Ixalan, beyond guessing that I might get something Mesoamerican. The opening text talks about some dungeon-crawling action, so that’s promising. As usual, though, I’m not really here to critique the setting design, but to talk about how the mechanics support and inform the intended story.
The setting looks like a Mesoamerica-influenced dungeon-crawling setting, which is a combination you don’t see every day. I like exploration and treasure in basically any context, so we’re off to a great start. There are four major cultures, apparently in regular conflict: the Sun Empire, the River Heralds, the Legion of Dusk, and the Brazen Coalition. I appreciate that the text recognizes the issues around characters from warring cultures, and dedicates an extensive sidebar to potential solutions. The layout there is a little strange, but whatever.
Each culture gets its own favored race(s), backgrounds, and classes, with no mechanical impact attached, as is probably preferable. They further get their own tables of Ideals and Bonds, which looks like a great way to communicate group identity and shared experience. The Sun Empire seems to offer a lot more breadth of character classes, while the Legion of Dusk has its own variant Oath Tenets for paladins – who are advised to use either Devotion or Conquest for their mechanics. Vampire paladins of Conquest, pale-skinned and in stylized conquistador armor? Little on the nose, but also awesome. I mean, they are loathsome villains, because conquistadors; I can’t really recommend this for PC use. The Legion of Dusk’s cultural ideals are super evil. I would suggest that the most obvious of campaign models is “everyone, including rebel legionnaires, against the Legion.”
Plane Shift offers an impressive six races, though humans are exactly what you’d expect. I am anxious for some setting, even an abbreviated one, to do something different with humans!
Merfolk are the only significantly-represented race of the River Heralds, and come in two subraces: green and blue. The theme is mostly what you’d expect. The core racial features:
- +1 Cha.
- Medium, though really pushing the upper edge of what that size means.
- 30-ft walking and swimming speed.
- Proficiency in Common (if that’s a thing in your Ixalan – it’s part of the optional rules sidebar from mixed-culture parties) and Merfolk.
That is one thin racial core, but it covers the most necessary parts of expressing a race as merfolk. I’d like to see one more trait added in there, something more active-use.
Green Merfolk are the wilder, more druid-themed subrace.
- +2 Wis.
- Mask of the Wild, per the wood elf feature. As an aside, I truly wonder what percentage of people playing wood elves get good mileage out of this feature. How many DMs include natural sources of light obscurement on the regular?
- You gain one druid cantrip.
Unless you can get good use of your Amphibious and swimming speed features a lot of the time, this is pretty underwhelming. It’s an elf, but less in most regards. The elf is well-designed to work with parties of other races; the green merfolk are great at going places no one else in the party can go, which can go very well or very poorly.
Blue merfolk are the more elegant and river-dwelling subrace, pretty much as you’d expect of M:tG’s color wheel.
- +2 Int.
- Lore of the Waters grants proficiency in History and Nature. That’s pretty great in combination with +2 Int, for sure.
- You gain one wizard cantrip.
Well, these are vaguely like high elves, I guess? The shortcomings of the high elf mechanics are such that blue merfolk are pretty competitive with them, but they’re otherwise low-balling power balance all over the place here.
Vampires cover a good range of the traditional vampire strengths, but like most player races that aren’t drow, have no serious drawbacks. Maybe that’s as intended for Ixalan vamps? Should there be a bit more in the way of blood dependence? Anyway, no subraces here.
- +2 Cha, +1 Wis. Going for Cha and Wis instead of any Str or Dex at all is a break with the flavor text that can’t help but bug me. The text says “stronger and faster than humans,” but since they’re converted from humans and lose their +1 to all ability scores, this is in one way just literally untrue (but see below).
- Darkvision, 60 ft.
- Vampiric Resistance grants necrotic resistance. Like you’d pretty much expect.
- Bloodthirst is where it gets interesting. You gain a bite attack that you can use against grappled, incapacitated, or restrained targets. It heals you a little bit – enough that you could feed on a target to death and be greatly healed, but not enough to be significant in-combat healing for its action cost.
- Feast of Blood is the second part of Bloodthirst, and grants you movement speed and advantage on Str and Dex checks and saves when you’re freshly fed (within 1 minute). Advantage on checks and saves is an okay “stronger than you” mechanic, but I think that break with stated flavor is still there.
- There’s also a racial feat that grants you a flying speed by turning your lower body into black vapor for 10 minutes. That’s a super cool per-short-rest power to have.
I like the function of Bloodthirst and Feast of Blood, and overall I like this presentation, though I think it falls short of fitting vampires for most settings. It’s clear from the art that Ixalan vampires have no problem with the sun, though, and likely no problem with fire or radiant damage. Other than the fact that I would really not play conquistadors in a Mesoamerica-based setting as a player character, this is fine. Adding in one more minor feature wouldn’t break it, though.
Orcs don’t have a lot new to say on flavor (except that orcs have been nearly exterminated by the Legion of Dusk), and nothing new to say on mechanics (they’re a find-and-replace of half-orc mechanics). That’s fine. Little surprised the document didn’t use VGTM orcs, but this is fine.
Goblins are nigh-on-kender-like, hyperactive, and small. Most of them are pirates, because the Brazen Coalition is the group that will take them in.
- +2 Dex. Um, for a race without subraces, there’s something missing here, like a point of ability score bonus. Yes, you can have a race with less than a total +3, but the rest of its features need to be noticeably strong.
- Walking speed of 25 feet.
- Agile Climber gives them a climbing speed of 25 feet when not wearing medium or heavy armor. At least do them a solid and make their climbing speed equal to their walking speed, so that speed buffs do something?
- 60-ft darkvision.
Um. This reads like someone forgot to write about half of it. Unless your campaign is mostly about climbing, this is deeply underpowered right down the line. (There’s a sidebar about goblins from other planes that makes it extra clear that this is all they’re supposed to have.)
Sirens are birdlike humanoids whose capriciousness, as described, would make them incredibly unpleasant to play with at the table. Sudden mood reversals without any impetus are, um, mental illness and not fun to be around? Please use this responsibly (by not doing it).
- +2 Cha. Seriously, a flying race can’t even snag a +1 Dex? ‘kay.
- 25-ft walking speed.
- 30-ft flying speed while not wearing medium or heavy armor (which makes the absence of a Dex bonus a bit sharper). Flight speed is still too good a lot of the time, but this race’s features are so abbreviated that I begin to doubt whether it’s good enough.
- Siren’s Song lets you cast the friends cantrip, and without material components. You’ve probably heard me say this a dozen times, but friends as written is not great for anything but a time-delayed taunt effect. I guess that suits the capriciousness thing, but… yeah, not a fan.
And that’s sirens. These six races are okay together – that is, when they’re basically the only options the DM puts on the table – but merfolk, goblins, and sirens don’t really hold up when used alongside other published races.
There are a few pages of additional art object tables and Who Created It? tables for use in Ixalan. There aren’t any mechanics here to speak of, but I’m pretty much always a fan of this kind of content (even if I almost never use it in planning my own sessions). These are good reminders of how to present setting flavor in everything the players interact with.
This is a bestiary of big, colorful, stompy monsters and if that isn’t the right way to start your day, I don’t know how to help you. Just about every dinosaur stat block belongs in Ixalan to represent one or more types of dinosaur, and as the father of a three-year-old, I am here to tell you that this is the greatest design decision ever made by a human. Ever. Dinosaurs, man, they’re the best.
New stat blocks include:
- the Frilled Deathspitter (presumably Dilophosaurus, better known to people of my generation as “the thing that killed Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park”), a super deadly CR ½
- Gishath, Sun’s Avatar, a legendary Rex of CR 10
- Six elder dinosaurs, unique individuals that are pretty much kaiju at CR 30 (so stompy)
- Sunbirds, which are your occasional reminder that the phoenix got cut from the 5e Monster Manual; at CR 13, these are a worthy replacement
- Chupacabras, and here I am legitimately sorry that they don’t have a feature that causes people to forget them and doubt their existence; an underpowered CR 3.
I like how deep this text goes on guidance for appropriate monster types and presenting the rainforests as teeming with life.
Appendix: The Colors of Magic
If you’re going to run a Magic: the Dungeoning and Also Dragoning campaign, you should really be thinking about the M:tG color wheel a lot of the time, especially as an aspect of character concepts. This document includes seven pages of guidance and pontification on how to do that. Each color has an alignment, power suite, suggested races, classes, and backgrounds, and tables of personality traits and ideals. There’s also some guidance on color-blending – that is, how does the personality of White splashed with Blue come across?
Overall, I like the setting and ideas that Plane Shift: Ixalan brings to the table. Several of its races are a mess and really need more to be acceptable options. The brief section on treasure is nice to have, and the new monster stat blocks have a good balance of use-it-today and seeds of a whole story arc. You could use this document with only minimal changes to run a variant Maztica, but I think the best game here is still everyone against the Legion. I mean, legions of vampires with no fear of the sun? Yeah, that’s a bad problem, in a fun way.