This is the beginning of what will surely (barring catastrophe in the next couple of months) be an extended series examining every nook and cranny of Tasha’s Cauldron. Let me say in no uncertain terms that this is not a euphemism, whatever you may have heard. We went on one date while I was in college, she had just broken up with some demon lord, I wasn’t ready to be a stepdad, it all fell apart. I miss her, is what I’m saying. Could you have her call… no, best not.
Editor’s note: Breakdown, not breakup, you nitwit.
Chapter 1: Character Options
(We’re going to be in Character Options for a long time yet.)
The chapter starts off with the origin-customization stuff we first saw released in the D&D Adventurer’s League rules for the new season. If you’re Extremely Online, you probably heard about this: those ability score increases from your race are now things you can reassign freely, as long as you don’t stack them with each other. You can also freely reassign languages, within a generous list that includes “special” languages like Primordial. There’s a short list of proficiency swapping options – for instance, if your race grants proficiency with a martial weapon, you can trade that for a different simple or martial weapon proficiency, or a tool.
I like that the example calls out Elf Weapon Training here. I’m just going to say, if you trade nothing else out of all your options, trading longsword for rapier is a very good idea for the very few classes that would care about adding a martial weapon proficiency at all, unless you’re also trading Dex for Strength, in which case you may want to drop the other three martial weapon proficiencies for literally anything else.
I’m fine with this substitution system – my sense of it is that feeling “locked into” a race by your class’s ability score needs was always an ugly place to be. 5e puts a lot less pressure on players to align racial ability score increases with their class’s attack stats than 3.x and 4e did, thanks to the ability score cap at 20 and bounded accuracy, but relieving that pressure completely is objectively better in my view. Does it matter that your halfling’s best possible starting Strength is 20 rather than 18? Friends, it does not.
A lot of online concern has revolved around mountain dwarves getting +2 to two ability scores. Cast your minds back to the mist-shrouded past of late 2014, when we first saw the official release of mountain dwarves, and remember that we had exactly the same discussion then. That extra point of ability score increase comes at a cost of the rest of your features being… actually underwhelming for the great majority of likely classes. A lot of proficiencies (woo, you can now reassign them), darkvision, reduced speed, and Stonecunning. Folks, this is not your powergaming go-to.
Racial alignment “tendencies” get further downplayed here as well. They’re incredibly low-functioning and usually an impediment to good worldbuilding anyway.
Customizing Your Origin
A sidebar here offers ways to toss out all features that are standard for your race and fully customize your origin. It leans on the wildcard variability of a feat slot and a skill slot and +2 to one ability score – if this sounds a bit like Variant Human, then you’re getting the picture. You have the option of darkvision in place of the skill (but it’s cooler if you don’t, because eliminating all questions of lighting and making the DM narrate around your darkvision spoils some of the mood of a good dungeon crawl). You’re either Small or Medium, your speed is 30 feet regardless, and your type is humanoid. You know Common and one other language.
This is a bold step, not least of which is because it lets everyone default to Variant Human. I’ll be happy if it results in parties with less darkvision overall. A friend of mine pointed out that you probably don’t want to have players stack their +2 ASI from the Origin and a feat that grants a +1 to an ability score. No matter how tempting it is to approach this with unbridled optimization in your heart, hang some story on it. Optimization is fine – just clothe your naked villainy in odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ (some story) so that it can be part of the story.
This section ends with Changing a Skill and Changing Your Subclass. The text suggests – and the tone reads as best-practices rather than A Rule – switching out a skill when you reach an Ability Score Increase feature. This is also your solution for minor build errors like getting a skill from your class skill selection that you also receive from a subclass or the like, on the off chance that your DM doesn’t let you respend immediately. (But they should – buyer’s remorse can be toxic to enjoyable gameplay.)
Changing your subclass is a substantially bigger story beat. The text suggests either training time, with a quest and/or a cost of around 100 gp times your current level, or a change as a plot event. I’ve seen a lot of rules around changing build decisions over the years, like the 3.5e DMG 2. Not nearly enough of them have the trust in the DM and the narrative to say “we don’t need to define specifics for you, just… make it a story beat, it’s fine.”
I’m going to skip the breakdown of the artificer class and the the Alchemist, Artillerist, and Battle Smith Specialists. Check out my deep dive into those in The Artificer Class, Part Seven. There have been some changes to the official version in the Errata, which are shown here in print, and which I’m mostly not digging into. Tasha does have a few new spells to offer them, including the (updated versions of the) swordmage-y cantrips from SCAG. Artificers, and especially the Armorer and Battle Smith, already had some “arcane paladin” (that is, arcane defender-who-also-heals) vibes going on, and this only intensifies that sense. That’s not a bad thing.
We saw the shift to “+PB” in the stat blocks for combat pets, in some recent UA releases, and that enters official-release notation here.
A lot of Tasha’s best jokes are in this one class.
As with all of the subclasses in this book, this first saw daylight in a UA release. The story here is very much Tony Stark, some presentations of Batman, the Mandalorian, and a lot of other inventor-in-armor characters. Especially the iconic hero of our childhoods, if you’re roughly my age: Inspector Gadget, I guess. What I like about it the most is how far outside the 3.5e artificer’s territory it is. On the other hand, this section gets one of Tasha’s best lines in the book, at least for my sense of humor.
Digression: a lot of the narrative around artificers touches on how things can and do go explosively wrong. This isn’t part of the artificer mechanics, and my series on the Artificer Class has a lot to say about how bad things get when designers spend too much energy on how characters “hilariously” suck. But… maybe there could be some cool Flaws (used to snap up some Inspiration) that are as simple as “Look, they ain’t all winners.”
The Armorer’s features:
- Tools of the Trade grants proficiency with heavy armor, and either smith’s tools or another toolset if you already have that one.
- Armorer Spells, maybe oddly, are about half-and-half defensive spells and the big badaboom. I’m taking that to represent Iron Man’s substantial arsenal – thunderwave is a particularly nice “short-range repulsion.” There are also stealth- and trickery-oriented options, which will continue into the features.
- Arcane Armor is first of your features for explaining your Cool Power Armor.
- Heavy armor doesn’t have a Strength requirement if it’s your Cool Suit.
- Your Cool Suit can be your spellcasting focus.
- You get that cool single-action to don/doff that we see Iron Man use. (This is not the way for the Mandalorian.)
- I am stuck on power armor, ‘cuz power armor’s stuck on me. (It can’t be removed against your will.) The armor provides any and all prosthetic limbs you might need. I appreciate the aesthetic touch that you can retract or deploy the helmet as a bonus action.
- Armor Model – yes, we’re four features in and still discussing 3rd level – lets you modify your heavy armor toward beefy tanking gameplay, or toward sneaky skirmisher gameplay. You use Int as your attack stat for your armor’s weaponry. You can switch up your configuration – your whole party role – as part of a short or long rest.
- The Guardian set (“Hulkbuster” was copyrighted) offers Thunder Gauntlets, which deal 1d8 thunder damage and distract (impose disadvantage on) attackers going after targets other than you. Classic tanking mechanism, if by “classic” you understand me to mean “less common in 5e than you’d expect.”
- Also part of the Guardian set is the Defensive Field, which grants you temporary hit points equal to your level, proficiency bonus times per long rest. This is very important for playing a d8 Hit Die class as a defender.
- The Infiltrator set offers the Lightning Launcher. It’s a ranged weapon that deals 1d6 lightning damage on a hit, and one hit per round deals an extra 1d6.
- The Infiltrator set further boosts your speed by 5 feet, and grants advantage on Stealth checks – negating the disadvantage you’d normally have from some suits of armor. (You probably won’t, but the subclass does give you the option of using medium armor.)
- Extra Attack at 5th Your tank is fight!
- Armor Modifications – 9th level is time for a few small repairs, she said – lets you apply infusions to your integrated weapon, your breastplate, your boots, and your helmet separately, rather than being a single item. You can now maintain two more infusions at a time, as long as they’re part of your armor. The first part is good for you, but you could be excused for not realizing it; the latter part is very obviously a huge deal.
- Perfected Armor at 15th level upgrades your Guardian and Infiltrator sets.
- The Guardian set can pull a target of up to size Huge closer to you as a reaction, and if you pull it to within 5 feet, you can thunder-punch it. You can use this awesome action up to proficiency bonus times per long rest – 5 when you get this feature, 6 two levels later. Mechanically, the vibe is very 4e, but not in a way that clashes with 5e. It amuses me to no end to think of it as an extending mechanical grabber, but there are also more serious-minded visualizations.
- The Infiltrator set upgrades its lightning attack to impose disadvantage on attacks against you when it hits a creature (many strikers need a soft de-taunt; not many get one), grant advantage to the next attack against that target, and the attack with advantage hits, the attack deals +1d6 lightning damage. So in one feature, there’s a debuff, attack buff, and damage buff that could benefit allies? That’s serious hotness on an at-will.
Overall, I think the Artificer has 4e DNA a bit closer to the surface than other classes, but that’s to its benefit in terms of clarity of your intended gameplay loop. The funny thing is, a lot of that 4e-ness that I’m seeing here is probably coincidental rather than conscious. However you choose to read the text, it works. I will say, even with Infiltrator you’re probably not going to make it as your team’s top damage-dealer. That’s not the artificer’s job, and comparatively, it’s more the Artillerist’s job than the Armorer’s – but this flexibility is incredibly nice, all the same.
New Artificer Infusions
I’m not covering the infusions that appeared in Eberron: Rising from the Last War – just the new stuff.
Arcane Propulsion Armor is an armor infusion that you don’t have to be an Armorer to learn. It borrows some of the benefits of Arcane Armor, but also grants +5 ft walking speed, some go-go-gadget fists that you can punch with or throw for 1d8 force damage. If you throw them, they come back and instantly reattach. The armor also can’t be removed against your will and acts as any necessary prostheses. It’s one of the more gonzo images of the artificer, which probably has something to do with its prereq of 14th level, but mostly it makes me think of Garnet in Steven Universe.
Armor of Magical Strength lets the wearer expend one of its six charges to add its Int bonus to a Strength save or check, or spend one charge and a reaction to resist one knockdown effect. It’s particularly nice for the light armor of a Bladesinger wizards.
Helm of Awareness requires a 10th-level artificer and an attunement slot, granting advantage on initiative rolls and immunity to surprise as long as you’re not incapacitated.
Mind Sharpener affects armor or robes, letting the wearer spend one of its 4 charges to succeed a Con save for concentration that they failed, as a reaction. This is incredible for… most casters, even paladins and rangers.
Spell-Refueling Ring is phrased slightly differently from a pearl of power, but the throughput is identical. It requires a 6th-level artificer and an attunement slot. The phrasing of the pearl of power is slightly clearer for what happens if, say, it’s a warlock of 7th level or higher using it.
Okay, if you haven’t heard (and missed that whole Class Feature Variants UA document), all of the Player’s Handbook classes are getting some optional class features in this book, some of which are additional and some of which are replacements. The text calls out that these are optional and not gained automatically, and… frankly that’s a weird fit for what I perceive in D&D gaming culture. Personally, I think I’m moving toward “and it would be good for us to at least experiment with changing that culture.” To put that another way, I think it could benefit us if DMs do feel okay saying either “yes, go ahead” or “no, let me hold that back and use it as a story reward.” There’s room for disagreement on the principle here, though. Ultimately WotC is trying to create options and allow group preferences rather than dictate your game from their tower in Minas Renton.
The two new features for barbarians are written to be direct additions to the class. Here goes:
Primal Knowledge gives barbarians an extra proficient skill from their class list at 3rd and 10th level. On one hand, I’m glad for all features that acknowledge barbarians as something other than a pretty little rage machine. On the other, picking up a new skill as late as 10th level means you probably aren’t your party’s go-to person for challenges involving that skill. Also, you might need to plan ahead for this feature. Between extra skills from race (orc especially!) and extra skills from background, you could definitely run out of barbarian class skills. Technically, only skills picked during the background selection step become wildcard skills if you double them up. Practically, of course, DMs are human or human-adjacent and not machines.
Instinctive Pounce is a free move of up to half your speed when you use your bonus action to enter a rage. This is a great piece of cinematic action, more common in video game warrior-types and berserkers than D&D barbarians. I like it as a mild action-economy fixer for barbarians.
Path of the Beast
This is a great subclass for the Beast Boy or Wolverine in your life. What I’m saying is that an animalistic transformation is a huge thing in the supporting fiction and I am happy to see it get a subclass.
- Form of the Beast gives you an extra natural weapon: a bite, claw, or tail. It’s a neat surprise that the tail suggests something particularly like an ankylosaurus or stegosaurus.
- McGruff the Crime Dog’s bite attack gives you a 1d8 piercing damage attack. Once per turn while you’re bloodied (you use bloodied in your game too, I assume?) you heal a little damage when you hit with a bite. Hunh. You kind of need to choose at the start of the fight (or burn an extra rage later on, I guess) that you’re planning to need the extra effect of that bite, because otherwise it’s less damage than the two-handed weapons that barbarians mostly want to use. Attacking with a bite while wielding a shield is okay, but kind of a funny visual.
- Do yourself a favor and google “what happened to McGruff the Crime Dog.” Irony makes the world go ‘round.
- Claws get in the way of using a two-hander even more. They’re a d6 slashing weapon that gives you an extra claw attack once per turn, if you’re using the Attack action. Just to break down some math here – since this is the raw-damage option – we’re comparing (1d6 + Str + rage) x 3 to (1d12 + Str + rage) x2. Assuming 16 Str and 5th level for a moment, we’re talking about (3.5 + 3 + 2 = 8.5) x3 = 25.5, up against (6.5 + 3 + 2 = 11.5) x2 = 23. This tilts more in favor of claws with level (as you improve Str and rage damage), but the greataxe has a huge advantage in magic item availability – which also creates an edge in accuracy.
- Your tail attack is a 1d8 bludgeoning weapon with the reach property; it also gives you a reaction that can potentially deflect an attack from an attacker within 10 feet, if subtracting 1d8 from the attack roll turns it to a miss.
- Bestial Soul at 6th level makes your natural weapons act as magic for penetrating resistance/immunity to nonmagic weapons, and it gives you a swimming, climbing, or jumping movement option. The jump is especially eye-poppingly impressive – you extend your jump by a number of feed equal to the result of a Strength (Athletics) check. I’m getting shades of City of Heroes here, and I like it. Most of all, though, it’s just good to see barbarians get cool exploration powers.
- Infectious Fury at 10th level lets you drive other creatures berserk when you hit them with your natural weapons. This can either be “attack your friend!” or “have fun with these weird animal nightmares” (that is, 2d12 psychic damage). The target gets a save, and on a success there’s no further effect. You get uses equal to your proficiency bonus per long rest – not, perhaps, a full-on damage fixer, but 8d12 (avg 52) to 12d12 (avg 78) psychic damage isn’t a joke.
- Call the Hunt at 14th level is an absolutely huge feature: it’s a team-wide buff (a number of allies equal to your Con modifier) that grants you 5 temp hp per ally that accepts, and they gain a once-per-turn +1d6 damage on a successful attack roll. This too gives you uses per long rest equal to your proficiency bonus. We don’t see barbarians getting a lot of leader-like powers, so this is cool.
My guess is that the Beast barbarian is sacrificing some overall damage output for some great extra effects on their attacks. It’s interesting that between the mandibles of the Bite attack and the “confusion” of Infectious Fury, an umber hulk is a surprisingly easy concept to get to from here – just add a burrowing speed, even a small one, to Bestial Bond. This has a lot of style, in any case.
Path of Wild Magic
This puts me in mind of the “rage mages” that came out in prestige classes about five minutes into 3.0e, but it’s a far more cogent approach. You just… kind of explode in unpredictable magic each time you enter a rage, and later each time you get hit or fail a save. As you’d expect from a table of Wild Magic effects, the things you do to your enemies are incredibly weird. Starting with the exploding pixies.
- Magic Awareness gives you a single-round detect magic-like effect, a number of times per day equal to your proficiency bonus. Barbarians with spooky senses never go out of style – but also aren’t nearly as attested in D&D as they could be.
- Wild Surge is your core feature, triggering one of eight different magic effects when you enter your rage. All of the effects except one include “until your rage ends.” Many, but not all, of these also give you something new to do with your bonus action.
- The first one is the only one-and-done effect, a point-blank large AoE of necrotic damage that also gives you a splash of temporary hit points. It may not have an ongoing effect, but if you’re in the middle of the fray (thanks, Instinctive Pounce!) this could generate just enormous amounts of damage.
- You can teleport 30 feet, and can keep doing that as a bonus action. This one is going to change your whole tactical approach to the fight on the fly, which is neat if not always
- You conjure an exploding flumph or pixie into a space within 5 feet of a creature within 30 feet. It blows up at the end of the current turn. (As we’ll see later, this might not be your) When it blows up, it deals a splash of force damage in a 5-ft radius. You can keep conjuring new ones as a bonus action. Who doesn’t love getting to throw a flumph grenade every round?
- Your weapon changes: its damage type becomes force, it gains the light and thrown properties, and it returns to your hand at the end of the current turn. It’s maybe a shame that you can’t throw it more than once per turn, and that this effect doesn’t deal any instantaneous damage.
- You gain a retributive damage effect that doesn’t cost your reaction. Because you’re a barbarian, you really might take a huge number of hits in a round, and all of them (all attack rolls, that is) kick back 1d6 force damage. No instantaneous effect, but oh boy does this one stack up if there are a lot of enemies.
- You gain a +1 bonus to AC, and radiate the same effect to allies within 10 feet. Randomly, I’m reminded that I should refine my understanding of when and where the rules use “ally” rather than “creature of your choice,” since I recently went through a whole document changing the former to the latter. Sorry, [REDACTED], that’s apparently on me. No instant effect, and there are very few cases of +1 AC auras in 5e, if any, so that’s a bit of a surprise.
- You radiate difficult terrain out to 15 feet, as flowers and vines grow wherever you walk.
- Carebear Stare – a bolt of radiant damage from your chest that can also blind the target on a failed save. You can repeat it on a bonus action. This is obviously amazing.
- Obviously, there’s a ton going on here, and you’ll want to copy this whole table for quick reference at the table. No standard character sheet is going to make that easy on you. If unpredictable shifts are your deal, though, this is incredible.
- Bolstering Magic at 6th level gives you an unusual action option: you can either grant a 1d3 bonus to all attacks and checks for 10 minutes, or you can refresh one of their spell slots of level 1d3. A single creature can’t receive the latter more than once per long rest, and you have a number of uses of this equal to your proficiency bonus per long rest.
- I love that this lets you do mostly-out-of-combat, leader-like stuff, and relates to a completely different character type. Great, great stuff. (I do kind of wish there were a clause for restoring ki, just… to connect to another character class, even though ki is per-short-rest.)
- Unstable Backlash at 10th level lets you change up your Wild Magic effect as a reaction when you take damage or fail a save. Four of the effects do something cool instantly, while the other four do something passively useful. It’s a good balance overall, I think? I mean, even a 12.5% chance of exploding in necrotic damage during your off-turn is great.
- Controlled Surge at 14th level lets you roll twice and take your preferred result when you have a Wild Magic surge; if you roll doubles, it becomes a wildcard pick. That’s absolutely amazing in improving your odds of getting a bursty surge rather than a passive-effect surge for your reaction.
Overall I like this as a more magic-oriented barbarian. Resoundingly rejecting the 1e/2e “Thog hate magic!” barbarian makes me so happy. This also engages your decision-making more than a lot of barbarians, which is something that a fair number of barbarian players I know are looking for.
We’re off to the races in this book – I have quibbles and questions, but nothing serious. We’re firmly within the D&D that I want to be playing and running, though I’m viewing these more through the lens of “do I want to see this as a DM?” than “do I want to play it?” For the latter question… well, the Armorer is my runaway favorite so far. Also I love the idea of playing a Custom Origin, skinned as maybe a high elf but with features that contribute to the party’s success in some way.