Surprise! Is werewolf. No, sorry, I meant that it is a new Unearthed Arcana release, bringing us a new bardic college and a new warlock patron. We’ve got some Big Spooky Vibes going this time, with a College of Spirits and an Undying Undead Patron. Sorry, Undying Patron from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, you didn’t deliver on the mechanics, and now you’re not going to deliver on your name. Cuz you deaaaad.
Bardic College of Spirits
My experience of college involved more spirits than lore or valor, so I identify with this strongly.
Ah, pardon me, they’re telling me that this means something else.
The flavor text here is contact with story-telling spirits. That could be ripped straight out of The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, which I’m reading right now and enthusiastically recommend for anyone who likes modern-day fantasy and video games. So, you know, getting off on the right foot. What it’s actually delivering is a fortune-teller… which does not reduce The Starless Sea vibe at all.
Oh, also, way back in 3.5e I tried to play a halfling bard as a fortune-teller. It didn’t really do what I wanted because bards weren’t full-strength casters in that edition. Delighted to see that here.
- Guiding Whispers teaches you the guidance cantrip and changes it from touch-range to 60 ft.
- Spiritual Focus lets you use a bunch of classic fortune-telling tools as spellcasting tools. The feature expands at 6th level, in a way we don’t see too often outside of paladin subclasses.
- At 6th level, your healing and damaging spells that use that spellcasting focus add 1d6 to the healing or damage done for “one roll of the spell.” Not a familiar phrasing, but it’s about getting your bonus damage on the first round of flaming sphere, vampiric touch, and those kinds of ongoing spells.
- Tales from Beyond (still on 3rd-level features here) is the single longest feature I’ve ever seen in 5e, but it’s worth photocopying the whole page(s) to keep with your character sheet. The deal here is that you tie up one of your Bardic Inspiration dice in the form of a spirit telling you a story. Roll the die, and that gives you an unusual effect in the chamber that you can activate later. There are stories all the way up to 12, so you’re unlocking new stories each time you increase your Bardic Inspiration die. That’s freaking amazing – now for the tales:
- Beast grants, in essence, Keen Senses and Pack Tactics for 1 minute. Well that is incredibly good.
- Warrior makes a melee spell attack against the target, dealing two Bardic Inspiration dice + your Cha modifier of damage. This one starts fairly good but doesn’t age well – 2dX + 5 for the cost of a Bardic Inspiration die fades hard at 11th level, except that bardic cantrips are often very low damage.
- Friends is a two-target healing effect. For the cost of a Bardic Inspiration die? Very good stuff.
- Runaway is, in a sense, a two-target misty step. Incredible.
- Avenger gives the target a new reaction for 1 minute, dealing force damage equal to your Bardic Inspiration die to an attacker who damages one of the target’s buddies. No attack roll? This one’s real good, yeah.
- Hero grants a good number of temporary hit points and 10-ft speed boost. Not a game-changer, but solidly nice to have.
- Fey charms the target until the end of its next turn, on a failed Wis save, and forces them to make one melee attack against another creature that isn’t itself. Hey, built-in scaling, you love to see it.
- Dark Spirit turns the target invisible until the end of its next turn, and adds a nice damage bonus and the frightened effect to their first attack that hits in that short duration. This is incredibly good.
- Giant is sort of a thunderwave concept, though it’s force damage – there’s a giant stomp (or someone squishing an unlucky kobold played by Chris Perkins, whatever really) that deals radius force damage equal to two Bardic Inspiration dice and knocking targets down, if they fail a Strength save. Very cool, if a bit more of a tonal stretch than the stories up to this point.
- Dragon is even bigger and flashier than Giant, with a breath weapon, but something about the image strikes me as so very Peter Jackson that I love it. It deals fire damage equal to three Bardic Inspiration dice in a 30-ft cone. That’s pretty great. Even better, you can choose an enemy that is surrounded by their own buddies and make them be team-killing jerks.
- Celestial imitates the Healing Touch action that angels get – healing for two dice + your bard level (uh, that’s pretty great) and also ending a disease or a condition.
- Unknown is, well, ia ia Cthulhu fhtagn, a bunch of folks take three dice of psychic damage, and the target is struck speechless (or, more likely, struck with aphasia or glossolalia, but the text doesn’t specify) for a minute. This is a very decisive caster-killer.
- Holy heck is this feature A Lot, but almost all of these are incredibly great. You have no reliability at all, so you’re picking up a random feature and seeing kind of tool you have to work with.
- Spirit Session at 6th level is a séance that lets you grab a wildcard spell of a spell level equal to or less than the lower of the number of participants or your proficiency bonus. It has to be a divination or necromancy spell, and you can treat it as a spell known until you finish a long rest.
- This feature is so freaking cool.
- Mystical Connection at 14th level gives you an always-available d6 that you can only use for Tales from Beyond. This one is harder to judge, though it’s going to make it a little weirder to roll 6 or below when you are spending a Bardic Inspiration die.
This is one of the most exciting and strange subclasses I’ve ever seen, hands down. It’s incredibly hard to judge objectively, but how could you not want to play this? Tales from Beyond depends heavily on its unpredictability to be at all okay in power, because so much of what it does is stronger than any other single option for spending Bardic Inspiration dice. (Admittedly, converting an enemy hit to a miss, or changing saving throw outcomes, could situationally outshine just about any trick in the book.)
The Undead Patron
This is unabashedly aimed at the same conceptual space as the Undying. As others have observed on Twitter – pairing this with Pact of the Blade is your WoW death knight, good to go.
As a quick note, the reason they don’t get animate dead in their Expanded Spell List… is that per-short-rest animate dead is overpowered to the moon and back.
- The Expanded Spell List is, you know, standard death-themed stuff. Bane as an Expanded Spell List option sure does tell Thief of Five Fates where to shove it. (New, better design isn’t constrained by something that was never great.) False life is an odd thing to see here, between the Form of Dread feature and the Fiendish Vigor Eldritch Invocation.
- Form of Dread is a multifaceted feature that’s going to be the core of your gameplay, and later features build off of it. You activate this as a bonus action, up to your proficiency bonus times per long rest, and it lasts 1 minute. It grants a 1d10 + your warlock level hit points – competitive with false life at some points, overshadowed at others. On your turn, one of your attacks that hits also forces a Wisdom save, frightening the target on a failure. Lastly, you become immune to the frightened condition.
- As usual, I grumble about immunity, but I won’t get that upset about immunity to frightened at this point.
- Grave Touched at 6th level ends your need to eat, drink, and breathe, changes your damage on any attack (so weapons or eldritch blasts) to necrotic, and while you’re in your Form of Dread, it adds one damage die to the necrotic damage you deal with your attacks.
- I feel like that might be a lot more damage boost than eldritch blast needs, since it’s not conflicting with Agonizing Blast or hex in any way other than the bonus action to enter the Form of Dread. Really, though, my issue is that it’s hard for other warlock patrons to compete with 1d10-4d10 extra damage (before taking crits into account) per round. Letting the extra damage only work once per turn would still be very good without blowing away the Player’s Handbook
- Mortal Husk at 10th level grants resistance to necrotic damage, which steps up to immunity to necrotic damage if you’re in your Form of Dread. Surprise surprise, I think this immunity is going to cause DM frustration. I’d much rather see a second resistance than an immunity here.
- Secondly, you can explode on “death,” dealing damage to all nearby creatures. You instead have 1 hit point and a level of exhaustion. It’s interesting that the reuse timer on this is “1d4 long rests” – something we’ve seen recently, but it’s still quite rare. Anyway, use this carefully, but exploding undead are the best undead.
- Spirit Projection at 14th level is a very weird utility and combat buff feature. Once per long rest, your spirit leaves your body – don’t worry, the plan gets better from here. This requires your concentration and lasts up to an hour.
- Your body and your spirit gain resistance to B/P/S damage.
- You can cast conjuration and necromancy spells without components, other than expensive components. I’m not actually sure why this gets rid of verbal components, but okay.
- You can fly at your normal walking speed, and pass through solid creatures and objects.
- While in your Form of Dread, your attacks also feed you healing equal to half the necrotic damage you deal.
- When your Spirit Projection ends, either you snap back to your body, or your body snaps to you.
To me, the Undead patron looks much more powerful than any Player’s Handbook patron, particularly by virtue of having one very simple gameplay dynamic: use Form of Dread, and then annihilate things with eldritch blasts. It’s incredibly cool and powerful, and if Archfey, Fiend, and Great Old One patrons could compete with this, I’d say it’s fine. Of course, they (mostly) shouldn’t be constrained by the design choices they made back in 2013 and 2014. I just want to revisit my homebrew variant of the Archfey and bring it up to this level.
Without the immunities, that is.