Mythic Odysseys of Theros Breakdown, Part Two
It’s been… more weeks than intended… but today I’m getting back to my breakdown of Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the D&D version of the Magic setting. Last time, I covered Supernatural Gifts and Races, so this time I’m continuing into Subclasses. It’s not to be mythed.
If you’re thinking, “Didn’t Robert Aspirin make that joke, like, forty years ago?” the answer is an emphatic yes. I grew up on Skeeve, Aahz, and really bad puns. Though it was many, many years before I understood what the Sen-sen Ante Kid was about.
What was I saying?
Part One | Part Two
The book has just two subclasses, but as it happens I’ve now seen both of them in actual use from 3rd to 5th level, in a Birthright campaign that my wife and I are running. They previously appeared in Unearthed Arcana, like you’d expect.
Bardic College of Eloquence
This college offers a masterclass in oratory and rhetoric, so of course it’s ideal for my highly political Birthright game, as well as the Athenian Agora.
- Silver Tongue gives you Reliable Talent (the 11th-level rogue feature) for Deception and Persuasion. If you have a good Charisma and haven’t totally neglected the skills, you’re well into can’t-fail territory for the majority of likely DCs. (There’s a whole conversation about how you might set social-interaction DCs to 20+ that, as far as I know, the PH and DMG skip.)
- Unsettling Words lets you apply your Bardic Inspiration as a penalty to a target creature’s next saving throw. You’ve got to apply the die before the saving throw is rolled, so you’re operating on minimal information and have a lot of potential for a use that doesn’t change the outcome, but when you do turn success into failure, this can definitely turn a battle. You can also hope to break concentration with this, since it hinges on a Con save.
- I’m not actually sure the bard in my game has used this yet. I’m sure he’ll tell me in the comments if I’ve just forgotten.
- Unfailing Inspiration at 6th level makes your Bardic Inspiration dice reliable – if they’re adding the die to the roll result and still fail, the die isn’t expended. This improves the chance that your Bardic Inspiration die changes an outcome, and that’s so good for this party role.
- Universal Speech, also at 6th level, lets you get around language barriers, all the way down to “this creature has no concept of language,” for a number of creatures equal to your Cha modifier, for 1 hour. This is 1/long rest, but you can refresh that by expending any spell slot. What it doesn’t do is give you any capacity to understand them, so your conversations with animals, elementals, and so on may be strictly one-sided.
- Infectious Inspiration at 14th level builds on Unfailing Inspiration – where Unfailing is an on-fail benefit, this one is on-success. When a roll applies your Bardic Inspiration and succeeds (regardless of whether the Bardic Inspiration changed the result), you can use your reaction to give another creature (not yourself and not your first target) Bardic Inspiration, without spending another die. It’s like getting your Cha modifier per long rest in additional Bardic Inspiration dice.
The Eloquence bard in my group is, of course, untouchable in social scenes, which are a huge part of Birthright. There are things that no Persuasion or Deception roll is going to talk someone into – it’s still not mind control – but he is still a bard with actual mind-control spells, so…
It’s not a combat-focused subclass, but what I see here isn’t the “social only” subclass that I have heard some call it. Unsettling Words, Unfailing Inspiration, and Infectious Inspiration promise to be very strong support features. My only concern is that it offers so much of a boost for differing applications of Bardic Inspiration dice that the bard faces a very tight economy and a high demand for short rests.
Oath of Glory Paladin
Just as when this was called the Oath of Heroism in UA, I’m still not completely sold that its narrative means anything, but okay, it’s Hercules, I can deal with that. The tenets broadly reflect an Olympic athlete, which… makes sense for Theros!
- The Oath of Glory spells tell a story that has more direct blasting spells – any – than I generally expect from paladins (guiding bolt, flame strike). Leaning heavily on physical buffs is the more obvious move, and there’s a lot of that here too.
- Two new Channel Divinity options, as is standard for paladins:
- Peerless Athlete grants advantage on Athletics and Acrobatics checks for 10 minutes, and increases the feats of strength you can achieve. Great for exploration sequences; the Glory paladin in my campaign also used it to thumb his nose at a group of enemies who used grappling as part of their tactics.
- Inspiring Smite gives you a pool of temporary hit points to distribute among nearby teammates (including yourself). 2d8 + your paladin level is real nice.
- Aura of Alacrity is a speed boost for the paladin and allies who start their turn adjacent to the paladin. This plays really oddly with initiative order, but it’s probably good that paladins mostly don’t win initiative. The one other place where it does its job well is when the paladin is covering a retreat – their adjacent allies can Disengage from the enemy line and gain +10 ft of distance in their withdrawal. Point is, this is hard to use well, especially in comparison to other paladin auras.
- Glorious Defense at 15th level lets you block for yourself or nearby allies (within 10 feet), a reaction triggered by a hit that boosts AC. If this turns a hit to a miss, which you presumably know it will do when you use the reaction, you also get to make a weapon attack if they’re within your range. (Great time to fight with weapons you can throw!) You can do this a number of times equal to your Cha modifier per long rest.
- This is a case where I really wish uses-per-day scaled off of proficiency bonus, just so Cha modifier wasn’t governing the same feature in two different axes. It’s a harder push toward “Cha 20 or gtfo” than I necessarily love to see.
- Other than that, it’s an absolutely phenomenal defender feature, and the worst I could say is that it’s a long time to wait for that kind of action.
- Living Legend at 20th level is, well, their 20th-level transformation. It’s a bonus action (hot tip: houserule Devotion/Ancients/Vengeance transformations to be bonus actions too) and lasts one minute, during which time you gain advantage on Cha checks, one missed weapon attack per turn becomes a hit instead (!), and you can use your reaction to reroll failed saving throws. Oh! You can also dump a 5th-level spell slot to refresh this. I am all about that new mechanic.
- That’s a whole lot of improvement; I’m gonna say it’s objectively better than Avenging Angel, and at least competitive with Holy Nimbus and Elder Champion. (Comparison to other paladin Oaths gets weird – and it’d be nice to finish this bullet point someday.)
Athleticism and raw magnetism are centerpieces of the narrative. It’s not as dominating on the offensive side as a lot of paladin Oaths, though all paladins can be offensively dominating thanks to Divine Smite, which needs no help at all. This brings some additional strength to the defensive side, which is also hardly necessary. My favorite features are those aiding in mobility and physical exploration challenges. A rare thing, among paladins!
There’s a new Athlete background, because of course there is. In Theros, athletes compete in the Iroan Games, and because you can’t spell Theros without “hero,” some weird stuff is gonna go down at the Games and give you a chance to make your reputation.
Anyway, the Athlete. Athletics and Acrobatics for their skills, of course. Proficiency in one language and land vehicles (you know, chariots). They have a custom table for their Favored Event, which includes both marathons and long-distance running. To me as one of the uninitiated, that looks pretty redundant.
Their feature is Echoes of Victory, which in a sense gives you a 50% chance of being treated as a celebrity for any settlement within 100 miles of your home. I’m surprised to see a 50/50 chance on anything in a background trait, but I think it could be fun to treat that as a baseline “celebrity rating” of 50%, and allow it to go up or down (or extend past 100 miles) based on events the character competes in after the start of play. (Yes, okay, a percentile rating is not how we do much of anything in 5e, but the 50% chance of success is already a bit of a break from expectation…)
Just one question: how are you staying eligible for the Iroan Games if you go into professional athletics?
Which brings us to the end of Chapter 1.
Chapter II (really, y’all? Roman numerals?): Gods of Theros
I’m not digging so much into the flavor text around divine interactions in Theros here – suffice it to say, they do what you would expect gods of Greek myth to do. This chapter gives us the Piety system, while each god gets a 2-3 page section that includes the benefits of Piety toward them. As we saw in Part One on this book, you gain features from Piety when your score reaches 3, 10, 25, and 50. The text suggests that Piety goes up one point at a time “unless your action is very significant,” but in general you’ll gain about 1 Piety per session as long as you’re reasonably in line with the god’s requirements. Changing gods dumps all of your old Piety and resets your score to 1 with your new god. Harsh, but if you can’t negotiate directly with the gods, you can’t really argue that your previous coursework should be applicable.
There’s a ton of great potential here to support or inspire gameplay as Chosen in a Forgotten Realms campaign, while still making it something you work on in the course of play. Athreos, for example, is a Charon figure, so his section works well for Jergal or Kelemvor. If you want to imitate the presentation of Chosen in FR canon, just tack on agelessness, and potentially add your Piety score to your maximum hit points.
I’m going to cover the features of each god in brief. They have suggested alignments (and even here I find plenty to disagree with), suggested classes (fine, I guess? But unconventional class/god pairings are interesting), cleric domains (including XGTE domains, which surprises me more than it should), and suggested backgrounds. Each has a table of suggestions for how your character came to serve that god, lending still more mythic stature to your backstory, and an ideal you might take up in the god’s service. There are deeds that should earn or lose Piety score for that god.
The writing on Athreos’s myths is incredibly good.
- Piety 3: You can cast gentle repose, Wis modifier times per long rest. I’m not going to say there’s no way for gentle repose to be overpowered, but it would take more than this.
- Piety 10: Speak with dead, 1/long rest.
- Piety 25: False life, 1/long rest, but it grants an additional 25 hit points.
- Piety 50: All Piety 50 features are +2 to one of two different stats, and +2 to the maximum of that stat. For Athreos, it’s Int or Wis.
She’s basically Erathis from 4e and Exandria. Divine teachings that boil down to “be a good member of society” are really resonating with me right now for some reason.
- Piety 3: Comprehend languages, Int modifier times per long rest.
- Piety 10: Gain advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks while in a city, and reroll an Int check or save once per long rest.
- Piety 25: Mordenkainen’s private sanctum, 1/long rest. I’m accustomed to Mordenkainen being able to show up anywhere in the multiverse, but showing up in Theros or Ravnica and getting wildly hilariously outclassed by a “true” planeswalker, or becoming a planeswalker himself, would be a great (if very meta) adventure hook to me.
- Piety 50: Int or Cha
God of the dead, as opposed to the god of passing into death; Hades, not Charon. At least those two are allies. The art for Erebos is just ridiculously cool. Also I like that Erebos still has wealth and precious metals as part of his portfolio, as Hades/Pluto do.
- Piety 3: Bane, Wis modifier times oer day. Interesting to see a combat spell here, even one I think of as not all that great. (The reason I’m not wild about bane is that it’s the inverse of bless, but with saving throws, so probably affects fewer targets.)
- Piety 10: Vampiric touch, 1/long rest. (This is your occasional reminder that the 14th-level Evoker feature Overchannel pairs with vampiric touch a little too well.)
- Piety 25: Hm, how to explain this without just reprinting it. You gain temporary hit points when a creature dies near you, as a reaction. I like that this gets around the typical last-hit problem where your teammates accidentally prevent you from using your features.
- Piety 50: Con or Wis.
Hail to the sun god, he sure is a fun god, Ra, Ra, Ra. He’s Apollo with additional delusions of grandeur. Every god can be used as main ally or main villain, but Heliod really jumps out as a jerk among “good” gods. (Heliod doesn’t have a listed alignment, but his champions are listed as “often good.”)
- Piety 3: You can cast bless, Wis modifier times per day, and your targets also shed dim light in a 5-ft radius. Well, bless is one of the most potent spells in the game, so…
- Piety 10: Daylight, 1/long rest.
- Piety 25: Advantage on saving throws against the blinded condition, and resistance to fire damage.
- Piety 50: Strength or Wis.
Victory and honorable war – so more Nike and Athena than Ares, I guess? (We get a full-on Ares figure a little later in the alphabet.)
- Piety 3: You can cast compelled duel, Cha modifier times per day. Unfortunately, this spell is close to worthless.
- Piety 10: Crusader’s mantle, 1/long rest. This, on the other hand, is pretty great.
- Piety 25: Once per long rest, for 1 minute and using a bonus action to activate it, Iroas’s blessing prevents enemies from having advantage on attacks against you. Unquestionably useful.
- Piety 50: Strength or Cha
Demeter/Ceres or Chauntea, this one’s for you.
- Piety 3: As a bonus action, 1 minute of +1 AC. One of the only places we’ve seen limited-duration +1 AC – that kind of fiddly bonus is something 5e mostly doesn’t do, and I’m surprised to see it here. Making that 1/long rest, still more surprising – at least compared to other gods’ Piety 3 features.
- Piety 10: Create food and water, 1/long rest, and you have advantage on saves vs the poisoned condition. Pretty cool.
- Piety 25: Spend an hour to make a potion of healing that lasts for 24 hours. Because of how duration and the re-use timer work, you could easily have six of these at the start of an adventure. That said, after 25 or so sessions of play, six potions of healing aren’t the world’s most impressive thing anymore.
- Piety 50: Con or Wis
Storms, wisdom, and inspiration – so this is the Zeus figure, but not a head-of-the-pantheon type. “Move fast and break things” is basically his credo.
- Piety 3: A number of times equal to your Int modifier, not more than 1/round, you can add 1d6 lightning damage to one of your successful weapon attacks. As with a lot of Piety features, this is much more useful to some character classes and builds than others.
- Piety 10: 1/long rest, reroll a failed Int or Wis save.
- Piety 25: Advantage on initiative rolls. This… seems like kind of a long time to wait for a minor benny.
- Piety 50: Int or Wis.
She’s standing in for Clothos, Lachesis, and Atropos here. Such subtle, wow
- Piety 3: You can cast command, Wis modifier times per long rest.
- Piety 10: Clairvoyance, 1/long rest, and advantage on saves against the charmed condition. I like the first part of this fine, but the second part seems less clearly on-theme.
- Piety 25: Immunity to surprise as long as you’re not incapacitated. That makes sense, though I doubt it comes up that often in most games.
- Piety 50: Strength or Wis.
He’s approximately Hecate, I guess? Also sort of Cronus/Uranus? But his deal is bound up enough in Theros’s cosmology and theogony that analogues break down a bit. (Hesiod might have a closer parallel to offer, but I am so not digging out my copy from college right now.)
- Piety 3: You can cast detect magic, Int modifier times per long rest; you also learn mage hand.
- Piety 10: Detect thoughts, 1/long rest, and advantage on saving throws against the charmed condition.
- Piety 25: Your mage hand becomes a floating +2 AC when it’s within 5 feet of you – so a shield of faith that stacks with shield of faith.
- Piety 50: Con or Int.
This is Ares. A casual read of his lore reminds me how Bane is the god of Strife, but was more often interpreted as authoritarian order than chaos. Later in the book, there’s a fairly extensive discussion of the contortions you have to go through to make Mogis into a heroic patron, or even the whole team’s patron (short answer: you’re playing the Black Company).
- Piety 3: You can cast wrathful smite, Con modifier times per long rest; this also causes the weapon to glow with dim light.
- Piety 10: Blinding smite, 1/long rest.
- Piety 25: Advantage on saving throws against both the charmed and frightened conditions.
- Piety 50: Strength or Con.
It’s hard to miss that this is probably the best combat effectiveness we’ve seen so far. Narratively appropriate, just interesting to see a clear winner in combat effectiveness.
Artemis/Diana. I listen to The Magnus Archives enough that a god of the Hunt has become a more distressing idea than it used to be.
- Piety 3: You can cast hunter’s mark, Wis modifier times per long rest. Hard to be too much more on the nose than that.
- Piety 10: Speak with animals 1/day, and advantage on saving throws against the poisoned condition.
- Piety 25: Beasts can’t attack you unless they pass a DC 15 Wis save – so basically an always-on sanctuary against one creature type. Interesting idea; I think I’m surprised we haven’t seen more features like this over the years.
- Piety 50: Dex or Wis.
Affliction and medicine – interesting in that she is both the thing and its opposite, where Iroas and Mogis are called out as having been a single being once that split into two because of their contrasting approaches to the question of violence. Pharika runs a harmacy, is what I’m saying.
- Piety 3: You can cast ray of sickness, Wis modifier times per long rest. Definitely an example of “don’t bother unless you’re heavily focused on Wisdom.”
- Piety 10: Advantage on saves against the poisoned condition, and immunity to disease. The game works so hard to make interesting disease effects, only to make it trivial to cure and with several ways to gain immunity. Alas.
- Piety 25: This one is fairly involved. Wis modifier times per long rest, you can either heal or weaken (half damage on all weapon attacks… oh how I miss 4e’s weakened condition) a target with a touch. The healing is a 1st-level cure wounds that also purges one disease or source of poison; the weakening touch offers a Con save.
- A lot going on, yes, but it’s kind of the big payoff of the whole deity.
- Piety 50: Dex or Wis.
Every pantheon needs a trickster god, right? There’s some Prometheus inspiration here.
- Piety 3: You can cast disguise self, Cha modifier times per day, but you always have a tell: your shadow doesn’t change shape to match.
- Piety 10: Advantage on Deception checks. I mean, yeah, obviously.
- Piety 25: Ooh, nice Stealth boost – an attack from a hidden position that misses doesn’t reveal you.
- Piety 50: Dex or Cha. As if there were ever a question!
Hephaestus/Vulcan, but with some of the competition for head-of-the-pantheon status that we see in Poseidon.
- Piety 3: You can cast shield of faith, Int modifier times per long rest, and you learn mending. Those both make sense, sure.
- Piety 10: Heat metal, 1/long rest, and you have advantage on saves against falling prone.
- Piety 25: While standing, you can use your reaction to ignore getting pushed. But if they can shove you a second time this turn, well, good luck.
- Piety 50: Strength or Int.
“Thalassic” is a wonderful word that comes up so rarely that I’m just delighted to see the low-key reference in this god’s name. (I know only the tiniest fragments of Greek, as is no doubt clear from me not catching references in other gods’ names.) Anyway, she’s Poseidon/Neptune, but with a gentler temperament.
- Piety 3: You can cast fog cloud, Int modifier times per long rest. Fog cloud is one of those spells that a player and their group really know how to abuse or really don’t.
- Piety 10: Blink, 1/long rest. I don’t think I’m seeing the narrative on this one, but… sure?
- Piety 25: Advantage on saves against being charmed or restrained. That one does make sure – restrained more than charmed, to my mind.
- Piety 50: Dex or Int.
And that’s it for the gods. Well, their mechanics – there’s a whole separate chapter on how to use the gods to tell stories in Theros, and it’s just fantastic. In both senses of the word – especially the tables of divine omens. I won’t be covering that or most of the other setting material in depth, because I’m more interested in design analysis than setting critique. I’m also skipping magic items, even though the artifacts are stylish and include a Piety progression track… sorry, Iconolasts!… that reminds me a bit of Exandria’s Vestiges of Divergence, but less nailed down on what they do.
Friends and Foes
The last part that I absolutely do need to talk about is the new monster mechanics. There are a bunch of new monsters, which is wildly unsurprising in a Magic: the Gathering property, but what stands out here are the new Mythic monsters, defined by their Mythic actions.
Okay, you know about Legendary monsters and Legen….dary actions in 5e. Great, wonderful. These are a little bit different because they aren’t always-on the way Legendary status is. It’s more like reinventing “bloodied” from 4e, but handling it as a secondary pool of hit points that kick in when you hit 0, rather than paying attention to when you fall below your bloodied value. It’s also, in a sense, an enrage state for these boss monsters.
Insofar as there’s a problem, the problem is that 300 hit points + 200 hit points + 100 temporary hit points (Arasta, CR 21) is… still only an okay number of hit points at that level. If you’ve never had a single character kick out 100+ damage in a round, well, please take my word for it that it is A Thing. DMs, be ready to amplify these hit point totals just like you would any legendary monster.
In addition to those hit points, the Mythic actions replace the monster’s Legendary actions, still spending out of the same pool. Arasta, for example, upgrades from Claws (one attack) to Swipe (two attacks), Swarm (2 actions, spawns minor minions) to Web of Hair (2 actions, essentially upgrading her Recharge 4-6 to something she can use in her off-turn), and Toxic Web (2 actions, creatures affected by Web of Hair take poison damage) to Nyx Weave (2 actions, larger amount of force damage and dispels magic of 6th level or lower on creatures affected by Web of Hair). I like how this gets extra punch and a sense of a bass drop out of a very marginal increase in complexity over Arasta’s base state. (Which, I’ll grant, is on the higher side of complexity, but that’s high CRs for you.)
The three Mythic Monsters described in this book are great, and what I like most is that they do seem to be pushing forward on what kinds of features a monster can have and what kinds of things they can require you to do to fight them, such as Tromokratis’s four hearts. You know, monster weak points that are hidden until you hit the phase change? I want to see Mythic (and, what the hell, Mythic+, just murder some PCs) versions of a ton of classic top-end creatures.
I came in expecting to like the mechanics just fine, but feel pretty indifferent about the setting. The setting grew on me steadily over the course of play – not enough that I’m dropping any of my current games to run it, but enough to move the book way up in my “rich vein for idea mining” rankings. We all have those kinds of sources, right? If not, get this one.
Probably my favorite things about the setting are how the gods are 13th Age Icons but all of them can be good, bad, or complicated. For all the same reasons it’s good in 13th Age, this gives you strong personalities, painted in broad strokes, that the PCs almost can’t help but feel some way about.
Second favorite, the interactions of Nyx and the Underworld with Theros. I’m not sure how to sum it up, but I am all about the Returned (even if I think making them strictly monstrous and hostile is odd) and the Nyxborn. This cuts way back on the number of other planes your characters can go to in a canonical Theros campaign (outside of M:tG planeswalking, you know what I mean), but makes them places you definitely want to go.
D&D has a long history of tossing out names of planes that it’s hard to think of a single reason to visit. 4e did its best to change that with a drastic overhaul of the cosmology, though it accomplished something closer to writing whole new settings that would still have few reasons to visit other planes. (Planes Above and Planes Below are outright phenomenal books, though.) Theros is weaving its planes together and emphasizing interesting reasons to travel.