Unearthed Arcana 2020: Spells and Magic Tattoos
A new UA drops while I’m furiously writing my Wildemount review? I picked the wrong day to quit taking horse tranquilizers, y’all. This document holds 11 new spells and 11 new magic tattoos. Let’s hit it.
Acid stream (sorcerer, wizard) gives us a line effect at 1st level – no more waiting for Aganazzar’s scorcher or lightning bolt. It’s really easy to miss how powerful this spell is, because it’s not a one-and-done line of acid. Concentration duration! No, my friends, creatures that fail their save are covered in acid and keep taking the spell’s damage at the start of each of their turns until they spend an action to get rid of the acid (or another creature can spend an action to do it for them). It doesn’t do any damage on a successful save, and it doesn’t deal any immediate damage. You’re going to run into times where a creature fails its save, but dies from some other cause before the first time it takes damage from this spell. Still, pretty cool spell.
Otherworldly form (cleric, sorcerer, warlock, wizard) is a big self-transformation effect with a substantial bullet-list of effects. It’s akin to the investiture spells of XGTE (also 6th level), but with a shorter duration (1 min vs 10 min) and even more effects. You choose either the Lower Planes, and get fiend-themed benefits, or the Upper Planes, and gain celestial-themed ones.
- Two immunities, either fire + poison (Lower Planes) or radiant + necrotic (Upper Planes). I grit my teeth at two immunities, but the shorter duration helps a lot here.
- A condition immunity, either poisoned (LP) or charmed (UP).
- 40-ft flying speed. Good odds that in the final, the text specifies batlike wings (LP) or feathered wings (UP).
- +2 AC, because these are about making it okay to go mix it up in melee.
- Your attacks are magical and you attack with your spellcasting stat.
- You make a second attack when you use the Attack action. (Doesn’t stack with Extra Attack, etc.)
So this is also kind of Tenser’s transformation with more cosmic implications? I mean, fiendform is a spell with a long (not looking it up right now) pedigree in D&D, and this covers that admirably – except for the other goal of fiendform, which is rubbing elbows in Dis for awhile. That’s quite the slate of immunities, but at least it’s not the heroes’ feast all-day poison immunity.
Spirit shroud (cleric, paladin, warlock, wizard) seems to say, what if you took those spirit guardians and stapled them to your attack rolls instead? When you attack a creature within 10 feet of you, deal +1d8 radiant or necrotic damage, and when a creature starts its turn within 10 feet of you, you can choose to reduce its speed by 10 feet.
This has a bunch of implications: it’s best of all for Eldritch Knights, once they finally get it at 13th level (that 6-attack Action Surge round is just unreal), and of course it’s great for paladins, bladelocks, and Bladesingers. Because they don’t get an extra attack, it’s only okay for melee clerics, even though they’re the first class I thought of when I saw the spell (because my brain wanted that spirit guardians connection). Oh, and it’s a strong Magical Secrets pick for a Valor bard. The within-10-ft limitation is there as if to avoid making it a go-to for eldritch blast spammers.
I’m happy to see Good Stuff for Eldritch Knights, even if this is good enough to overshadow all other spell options regardless of the fact that it’s necromancy. Even better for Bone Knights from… Morgrave Miscellany, I think it was? I’m also happy about doing bladelocks a solid, while paladins have to ask themselves if they’ll really get better damage out of this than just burning the 3rd-level spell slot for a big smite.
Oh, and its At Higher Levels is completely bonkers. +2d8 per attack for an EK is horrifying; +3d8 per attack for a bladelock or paladin is… actually similar net damage; let’s not talk about what a Bladesinger can do with this, especially if someone else hastes them.
The other eight spells in this document all start with the word “summon.”
Summon aberrant spirit (sorcerer, warlock, wizard) is a 4th-level spell to summon a minor aberration: your choice of a beholderkin, a slaadi, or a star spawn. That choice determines its appearance, and each type gains one trait and one attack based on your choice. Much like the Class Feature Variant beast companion, the stat block includes internal scaling features, but rather than scaling with your class level, it scales with the level of spell you cast with. That means it tops out early for warlocks, which is a bit of a shame because they’re the most thematically resonant with this spell and a lot of the summons. It was going to be a hard argument to justify spending a 6th+ level slot on this for wizards or sorcerers, though. (Though, uh, I may need to reconsider this after looking at that Multiattack function: one attack for every two levels of the spell slot you expended to cast this. It gets Real in a hurry.)
Anyway, the summoned creature requires your concentration, but doesn’t eat up your action – it has its own turn, immediately after yours. I love that the three different options cover different combat roles: beholderkin for ranged DPS, slaadi for durability, star spawn for melee DPS, both single- and multi-target. The real question is whether a summoned creature with 47 hit points stands up well enough for your 4th-level spell slot, with a similar question for every spell slot above that (at +10 hit points per slot level).
I love what this approach to summoning is bringing to the table. I have a hard time judging how it will play out, and it is going to be super situational. As Alexandra Erin pointed out in Twitter last night, it’s a move toward 4e-style summoning: a new and self-scaling stat block, rather than summoning a normal version of an existing monster. Player’s Handbook conjure spells have some issues, though – not least of which is that their effectiveness varies so wildly based on what the DM picks for you (DMs, do yourself a favor and never go with pixies or flying snakes), and they rely on surfing though monster books. Monsters aren’t built from a perspective of “a player will want to conjure this,” and it shows. This document’s approach is the solution to that.
Summon bestial spirit (druid, ranger… I’d make an argument for allowing Archfey warlocks to grab this one too) has a lot in common with the Class Feature Variant beast companion – you choose Air, Land, or Water, but the ability scores, AC, and so on are unified. Your choice of type determines movement modes and grants 1-2 features. And hey, its attack deals enough damage that maybe you won’t use all of its actions as Help actions to grant yourself or a party member advantage, the way everyone with an owl familiar does right now! If you’re feeling called out by this, well, all I can tell you is to stay socially isolated and sit with that feeling. As a 2nd-level spell, this is very appealing, though as usual I feel bad for melee rangers casting concentration spells. The one surprise here is that its Perception bonus isn’t any higher.
Summon celestial spirit (cleric, paladin), a 5th-level spell, has you choose between a deva-like Defender (judging by the mace) and a solar-like Avenger (based on the bow). The Defender’s mace also grants temporary hit points to the Defender or an ally, equal to the damage dealt, and deals competitive damage to the bow (which has no additional special feature). Both versions also get a 1/day Healing Touch. It’ll be a little easier to keep the Avenger alive because they stay at range, but overall I think it needs a bump to compete with the Defender. At the risk of being a nitpicking jerk, the passive Perception score is wrong. That said, the spell is incredibly cool.
Quick side note: each of the summons has a non-consumed expensive material component. They’re all cool and distinctive, and they come really close to a sense of being a magic item in themselves that you would seek out so that you can gain access to these spells. Spell-access quest goals!
Summon elemental spirit (druid, sorcerer, wizard) is a 4th-level spell that offers the obvious four-way choice. Because there are so many options and so many things we just… expect out of elementals, this stat block is a little more complicated than the others, but I don’t think it crosses a line into unmanageable. There are some kinds of variations – like earth elementals being tougher or fire elementals more damaging – that this spell just doesn’t try to support at all, and I think that’s fine. What is missing here is any sense of significantly differing tactical applications. 90% of the time, they’re just different flavors of melee brute, and your choice is only a skin.
Summon fey spirit (bard, druid, sorcerer, warlock, wizard) is a 3rd level spell, with Deceitful, Furious, and Joyous as its options. I think it’s interesting that the fey summon is the most widely-granted one. The physical description of the summoned creature as “satyr, dryad, or elf” is surprising – since this is the first time we’ve seen a player race show up in a summon or a conjure spell, as far as I know. There’s a whole cosmological complication around how fey-adjacent elves make it complicated to describe sidhe and Archfey… a conversation for another day.
Anyway. The special features from each choice are secondary effects after the fey uses its Fey Step feature, which it can do as a bonus action every round. The secondary effects are modest – a 5-ft cube of darkness, one charm effect, or advantage on one attack roll – but they’re so steadily accessible over the course of your hour with this spell that they add up. Having a ton of creatures charmed by your fey summon helps keep your summon safe, but probably doesn’t do anything to protect the rest of the party unless the fey is spending actions during combat? Impassioned Step (the fey and the furious) is, by far, the easiest of these to use well. Darkening Step, with its very short duration, may be the hardest to use well, but it’s great for messing with casters throwing “…that you can see” spells.
Summon fiendish spirit (warlock, wizard) is the highest-level summon, at 6th, and gives you a choice between devil, yugoloth (it’s okay, guys, we know you mean daemon), and demon. The physical divergence of every type of fiend makes “resembles a fiend of the chosen type” particularly ambiguous. Yugoloths get a bit of the short end of the stick on features, but their claw attack is especially good – after every attack (6th level spell, so at least 3), they can teleport up to 30 feet. That’s some master-level skirmishing. All of the types gaining magic resistance is handy, too. The showstopper, though, is the demon’s Death Throes feature, which kicks in when it hits 0 hit points or when the spell ends.
My only note on this spell is that the XGTE conjures are so flavorful in their dangers that I will be sorry to see this overshadow them. I expect those XGTE spells aren’t seeing a ton of use at the table, though. (Prove me wrong in the comments!) This spell is cool, it just needs the player and DM to put in a little extra effort to get to its rich story potential. I would encourage players to understand that their control over the fiend may be portrayed as tenuous and require roleplay, whatever the spell’s description says.
Summon shadow spirit (sorcerer, warlock, wizard), at 3rd level, offers the choice of Fury, Despair, or Fear. Having covered Despair, Destruction, and Death, now give me Desire, Delirium, Destiny, and Dream, you cowards. ([ring ring] “Mr. Gaiman’s lawyers are on lines 2-8, sir, should I have them hold?”)
Anyway, this is a monstrosity from the Shadowfell, so it’s actually referencing the Sorrowsworn from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, as far as I can tell. I like seeing that referenced, because the Sorrowsworn are cool, horrible, and deeply under-used. Fury’s feature, advantage against frightened creatures, is sometimes going to be hard to use, since it relies on running down a creature that is trying to get away, and relies on the target failing a save against an effect the shadow spirit can only use once a day. Shadow Stealth, the Fear feature, relies on lighting conditions, but you have more foreknowledge of lighting conditions when you decide to cast. The Despair feature, a -20 ft speed reduction for humanoids and beasts, is dangerous for your allies, but otherwise it’s awesome defender stickiness. Finally, the chilling rend attack that all shadow spirits use is very respectable damage – competitive even against the summon fiendish spirit options. Cool spell, all the same – and super memorable if an NPC uses it against you.
Summon undead spirit (warlock, wizard) is 3rd level, and you choose between Ghostly, Putrid (ghoul, not zombie), and Skeletal. These are all incredible, to put it plainly: Ghostly offers incorporeal movement and a frightening touch, Putrid has a 5-ft aura of the poisoned condition and a paralyzing claw, and Skeletal has a high-damage ranged attack. Much like summon aberrant spirit and summon shadow spirit, this spell is very strong on distinct combat roles. Being undead, the spirit is also immune to necrotic and poison damage and the poisoned condition, of course – so it could be a solution to exploration puzzles.
And honestly that’s the danger with a lot of conjure and summon spells: it’s a party member that is incapable of survival, so it’s a no-risk solution to a whole lot of traps and other exploration challenges. That was less true of 5e’s summoning spells, because it was a precious daily power. Here, though, we’re talking about a spell of 2nd to 4th level (even at the top end, 5th-6th level spell slots are precious) to trip or fly over all sorts of traps. Players and DMs need to come to some kind of agreement over whether that’s clever or anticlimactic, in the same way that the perfect heist plan is boring to play through. The 1-hour duration is the issue (if it’s an issue) here.
The one oddity about these spells is that they all scale about the same way in offense and defense math, so if you have two summons of different levels prepped, you’re getting surprisingly similar combat effectiveness from them, though summon bestial spirit lags a bit. Your decision is going to be more situational – which traits seem useful here, which resistances and immunities apply, that kind of thing. This isn’t a problem. It does suggest why the fey spirit gets a 1d6 force damage kicker on its shortsword. Contrast this with the scaling on direct-damage spells (other than fireball and lightning bolt, those break the curve and we all know it). A lower-level spell pumped up with a higher slot won’t keep up with a natively higher-level spell, because the Spell Damage chart scales faster than 1dX per spell level.
Overall, I love this summon model, because I want to love summoners as a combat style. One player in my late-3.5 campaign abused summoning, to the point that it bogged down combat beyond all reason. Even with that, I want to like the style, and I think these eight spells might do it.
I’m not doing the full dive into the history of magical tattoos in D&D right now, but the History of the Monk includes a rundown on the 3.0 Oriental Adventures Tattooed Monk prestige class. There was… something or other… in 4e, but I am so not running it down right now. Tattooed spells are also a big thing in Malhavoc Press’s Arcana Evolved setting. Fell’s Tattoo Parlor in Planescape: Torment is one of the best, most story-rich uses of magical tattoos in any medium of art. Finally, Colin created a tattooing pact for warlocks in Seas of Vodari that I think you’ll love.
The application and attunement rules for tattoos are unusual. The tattoo is stored in a magic needle, which you touch to your skin while attuning. This causes the needle to become ink, which flows onto your skin. If you end attunement, the needle re-materializes. The weird part is that tattoos take up a defined amount of space on your body; for rare and above, that’s measured in limbs or torso space. Only common and uncommon tattoos can fit entirely on the scalp. No matter how many magical tattoos you have, they all occupy the same attunement slot. I choose to read this as a nod to the way that anyone who gets one tattoo immediately wants another. That puts a complicated spin on talking about power balance.
I love the sidebar about using this for non-tattoo body modification. Flesh grafting and cybernetics, here we come. Get me some of that bonkers Vicissitude chocolate in my D&D peanut butter.
…got a little worked up there.
Absorbing Tattoo (very rare) grants resistance to one non-BPS damage flavor, and once per day you can use your reaction to crank that up to immunity + temporary hit points equal to half the damage you would have taken. That’s obviously awesome as hell. Also, because I am not a Tattoos Guy (I spill a ton of digital ink, rather than putting the real stuff in my skin), I don’t know how much true metallic silver or gold tattoos are a thing, but that looks amazing in my imagination.
Barrier Tattoo (uncommon, rare, or very rare) is an armoring tattoo that looks like you’re covered in liquid metal. This is damn close to just being the aesthetic of a) a super obscure Marvel Comics character, you probably haven’t heard of him and b) a character I played for 10 years in a boffer LARP that I will absolutely tell you about if not stopped by main force. The ACs resemble studded leather (uncommon), half plate (rare), and plate (very rare) armor, but without disadvantage for Stealth, and without any requirement of proficiency. That very rare version is just spectacularly good for a ton of different characters, unless you have access to armor with big magical bonuses.
Coiling Grasp Tattoo (uncommon) is one freaky tattoo, and flashy by the standards of uncommon items. Any spell, item, or feature description that involves the words “extrude into inky tendrils” is going to get real weird. Anyway, your tattoo gives one enemy within 15 feet a special hug that just won’t let go, grappling them and dealing 3d6 force damage. That’s good, though without a scaling function on the damage, you’ll have better options in any class later on in the game.
Eldritch Claw Tattoo (uncommon) is a promising name, for sure! Okay, your unarmed strikes become (approximately) +1 magic weapons, that’s cool. (The monk in my game already has some of the best magic gear, so uh, sorry Matt.) Also, 1 minute per day, you can hit creatures up to 30 feet away with your melee weapon attacks, and you deal +1d6 force damage. This doesn’t increase your reach, technically, so it doesn’t change your opportunity attack trigger, as far as I can tell. I’m surprised it doesn’t go with “when you use the Attack action on your turn” or something to close the door more explicitly on opportunity attacks. Anyway, this looks amazing; I’m surprised it’s uncommon and not rare.
Blood Fury Tattoo (legendary) is the showstopper. Expanded crit range is an incredibly rare feature in 5e outside of the Champion fighter archetype. +4d6 damage on a crit, and that damage becomes temporary hit points for you, puts me in mind of 4e magic weapons. When you take damage, use your reaction to attack back with advantage… that’s outstanding. Given its name, it’s no surprise that this is one of the best items ever published for a barbarian, though its third feature overshadows the Berserker’s Retribution feature.
All I want to say about this is that, as a DM, you owe it to your game to build as much story around this item as you possibly can. Commemorating a major setting or campaign event, like the whole of the Blood War, might be about right. Think about how Maui’s tattoos tell his backstory (…yep, still funny) in Moana… or go play Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition. Think about how displaying this tattoo can drive the story and change how NPCs perceive the character.
(I appreciate how alphabetical order hints that maybe “blood fury” wasn’t the item’s original name.)
Illuminator’s Tattoo (common) would be my new favorite thing in real life (never look for a pen again!), to say nothing of my wife’s. The ability to pass messages back and forth that only one person can see is great. We’re socially isolating in our house already, so writing post-it notes to each other on the walls would be something to do. Sure, you can also use this for some good espionage play. Fun item!
Lifewell Tattoo (rare) is the half-orc’s Relentless Endurance feature, once a day. You won’t need this every adventuring day (probably?), but when you do, it’s awesome for any character. The name makes me think it’s either a Christian bookstore/tattoo parlor (…this is not common) or a wellness and nutrition/acupuncture joint.
EDIT: The lifewell tattoo also provides necrotic resistance. I just totally didn’t see that on first read. Definitely elevates this item!
Ghost Step Tattoo (rare) is the name of my Wu-Tang Clan tribute band. Also it gives you three rounds of incorporeality a day. In keeping with ghost stats, this gives you resistance to nonmagical weapon damage, immunity to grappling and restraint, and the ability to phase through creatures and solid objects. Sounds like a fun item to me!
Masquerade Tattoo (common) is a completely believable fixture of Atlanta night life, but it was replaced with mixed-use development. Non-Atlantans, this joke isn’t for you.
Ah, sorry. It’s an appearance-changing tattoo that lets you cast disguise self on yourself once a day. It “is always obviously a tattoo,” presumably to block out faking a dragonmark. I dunno, can you give yourself the appearance of a functioning dragonmark with disguise self? Could that be the entirety of your disguise, while the rest of you appears as normal? I guess I’m surprised to see a common disguise self item, even toned down to 1/day, when the hat of disguise is working its shenanigan-laden will in the world. I’d far rather have a 1/day item than an all-the-time item in my campaign, though!
Spellwrought Tattoo (common up through rare) stores a single casting of a spell, anywhere from a cantrip (common) to a 5th-level spell (rare). This tattoo doesn’t require attunement. It’s functionally scroll that anyone can use, but that wizards can’t copy a spell from. The magic item also covers the cost of components. I love the idea of a spellwrought tattoo of revivify or raise dead as an emergency holdout.
Shadowfell Brand Tattoo (very rare) is a laundry detergent that keeps your dark clothing darker. SO MUCH DARKER.
It grants advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks, so it’s already pretty awesome. It also gives you, in essence, 1/day resistance against any one source of damage, as a reaction. Not actually resistance, though, so it stacks if you do have resistance, or some other way to halve damage, like Uncanny Dodge. A barbarian or rogue could take one heck of a hit and shake it off with this. Thumbs up.
I have a few quibbles with minor details of certain summon spells, but taken together, I like what I see. It suggests that whatever book these are going in will offer robust mechanical concepts that may be lighter-touch on the story side. Players and DMs always need to be developing their own story context for spells, magic items, and everything else. Now’s a good time for bloggers, developers, and gaming groups to talk technique.