Once again we have a new Unearthed Arcana that begs discussion.
On November 4th, 2019, a massive playtest document was released introducing class feature variants for all the major classes in the Player’s Handbook. Some people have already taken to calling it “D&D 5.5” after how a series of equally significant revisions to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Third Edition in 2003 were implemented under the new system name “D&D 3.5”.
While a rebranding five years after the initial release of Fifth Edition is unlikely, the new variants could result in noticeable changes to the core classes. In this article, we’ll go over them and share our thoughts.
Before you read on, we ask that you help support Dungeon Master’s Workshop by whitelisting us on AdBlock. Revenue from ads helps maintain this website, and we don’t run annoying ads that play sound or pop up. Alternatively, you can become a patron on our Patreon and read on guilt free!
The variants in this new Unearthed Arcana aren’t just about retooling suboptimal class features, they are primarily about improving versatility of character building. Everything from improving spell selection to revising core class features to allow freedom of choice all drastically improves player agency. Some of them may need some revision before being implemented (and we’ll look at some big offenders), but overall the variants show a lot of promise.
The following are the variants which apply to multiple classes.
CANTRIP & SPELL VERSATILITY
Clerics, druids, and wizards can now replace one cantrip each time they level, and all spellcasting classes that learn a set number of spells rather than preparing spells from a list (i.e. bard, ranger, sorcerer, and warlocks) can now replace one spell known at the end of a long rest rather than when they gain a level—including, as the document specifies, the ability to swap cantrips, as they are spells (though you can’t trade cantrips for non-cantrips or vice versa).
Mechanically, these changes add a much-needed flexibility in spell choice, especially the Spell Versatility feature. From a rules perspective, they make sense and will definitely make a lot of people happy. A lot of people will probably be more interested in playing those classes with these variants that had previously defaulted to classes that had access to their class’ entire spell list.
The concerns that these changes raise are twofold: (1) it significantly changes the flavour of these classes and erodes what makes them functionally different from others, especially in the case of the sorcerer and wizard; and (2) it risks evoking parallels to the popular video game mechanic of a skill bar, where you can swap out your abilities before going into a fight, which may further incentivize parties to delay fights solely to make these sorts of preparations after a long rest rather than to be creative with the options they have available to them.
Dungeon Masters who wish to run games using these variants should be even more sure to either be prepared to push a party to feel pressured for time or have a plan for what happens if the characters don’t intervene.
EXPANDED SPELL LISTS
Spellcasting classes have all had their spell lists expanded to include more spells, including some from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Now your divination wizard can cast divination, your cleric has picked up those amazing healing spells that the paladin has jealously hoarded (save from those sneaky bards with their Magical Secrets), and druids can finally revive the half-elf without turning him into a half-orc. Circle of the Land druids are sort of getting the shaft from the spell list expansions, since some spells that had previously been unique to certain lands (cone of cold for arctic, divination for grassland, etc.) are now available even to other circles, but it’s not like there are any Circle of the Land druids to complain anyway.
MARTIAL VERSATILITY & NEW FIGHTING STYLES
Fighters, paladins, and rangers can now replace their fighting style selection when they gain a level in their class. This can be quite handy if you have come across a magic item that causes you to change your typical fighting style, such as dropping a nonmagical longsword and shield for a magic greatsword, or maybe dropping a nonmagical greatsword because you picked up a magic shield. Whatever the reason, it’s a great option to have and it is worded very wisely as a shift in the focus of ongoing practice and training, rather than somehow negating the end result of years of study.
In addition to being able to switch fighting styles, there are several new Fighting Style options: Blind Fighting, Interception, Thrown Weapon Fighting, and Unarmed Fighting. They’re all neat and address gaps in the existing mechanics, but Blind Fighting is likely to be abused.
Blind Fighting is the answer to the prayer of every martial character who has ever found themselves in the middle of the wizard’s darkness spell, and will most likely elevate that spell from a nuisance to a staple of every self-respecting arcane spellcaster’s repertoire, especially when the martial characters gravitate to a two-level dip into rogue for the ability to hide as a bonus action in the midst of the darkness so they can attack with advantage and trigger sneak attack. When it means adding 2d6 damage to your roll, going for a lighter weapon is worth it.
Fighters, paladins, and rangers also each get their own options: Superior Technique, Blessed Warrior, and Druidic Warrior (respectively). Superior Technique is probably the most disappointing because it just further diminishes what makes the Battle Master unique, but the paladin and ranger options, which allow you to learn two cleric or druid cantrips, totally change how you would play those classes. A dual wielding ranger with the thorn whip cantrip could effectively control most of a typical battlefield, and a paladin with sacred flame suddenly has a valuable ranged option—a weakness for most front-line characters.
A global benefit for all classes, this option allows any character who gains the Ability Score Improvement feature to also swap one of their skill proficiencies. Note that this doesn’t substitute for the ability score improvement, but it is contingent on gaining this feature, so if you forego taking the feature to instead take a feat, you don’t benefit from this option.
This variant specifically allows you to replace any proficiency, not just one from the class you levelled. Even skills you gained from your race or background choice, from the Skilled feat, or from multiclassing as a bard, ranger, or rogue can be replaced, though they must be for a skill on the class list for the class you levelled.
The likelihood of this coming up in a game might turn out to be surprising, but given that it will typically come along only once every few levels, it will probably function as a fine-tuning method to keep players happy with their characters based on actual play.
Each class also has specific variants that expand its features.
Barbarians get two feature variants: Survival Instincts and Instinctive Pounce.
The first is possibly a desperate attempt by Mearls to stop the endless questions about whether a barbarian should have advantage on his Dexterity saving throw against this spell or that spell by instead giving him proficiency (and expertise) with two more skills from a list with only one new option.
The second replaces a flat 10-foot speed increase for the option of chasing down a foe within 15 feet of you. This won’t help with pursuing a fleeing foe, as they’ll likely end their turn more than 15 feet away from you, but it is an excellent way to ensure you can back up your ally and maintain ideal positioning on the battlefield.
Everyone’s favourite libertine can now add their bardic inspiration to damage and healing rolls, all but entirely removing the addendum the bard has always had to include when they said, “You can add that die to any roll”. Death saving throws and non-d20 rolls (other than damage rolls) are still not eligible for inspiration.
A new standard Channel Divinity option to regain one 1st-level spell slot offers at least some much-needed spell recovery to the class, while the Blessed Strikes variant trades an extra d8 of damage for high-level Life, Tempest, Trickery, and War domain clerics and a reliable damage boost on cantrips for the other domains with a consistent d8 bonus damage on all attacks and spells for all domains. While Blessed Strikes is objectively better than Divine Strike or Potent Spellcasting, it also now means that every cleric domain has the same 8th-level feature, which begs the question: Why bother having it be a domain feature at all?
Druids can now trade one of their two Wild Shape uses to summon an ally that is objectively less valuable than a moderately sized stray dog you can bring to your side with a 1st-level animal friendship spell and a good Wisdom (Animal Handling) check. Also, the creature you tame with animal friendship is your ally forever, not for a couple hours a day. It’s honestly hard to think of a situation where this is worth doing.
Battle Masters, already by far the most popular subclass, are now even better because you can swap out your manoeuvres at the end of a long rest. Also, there are now seven new manoeuvres.
Monks get a few variants and some extra Ki options.
The Ki options are neat and nice to have. The Monk Weapons feature to replace Martial Arts seems to be worse than the regular option unless there’s something we’re missing.
The most perplexing variant, however, is the stock bonus action attack whenever you spend a ki point, which conflicts with almost all the other options. About the only Monastic Tradition that will benefit from this is the Way of the Four Elements, since the others mostly use their ki points to perform the bonus action options (Flurry of Blows, Patient Defence, Step of the Wind). Monks and rogues both have a lot of competition for their bonus actions, so this doesn’t really seem like a variant that is much worth implementing.
Aside from the spell list expansion and the new fighting style, paladins get a new Channel Divinity option which allows them to regain one expended 1st-level spell slot. While this variant was somewhat forgettable for clerics, it actually makes a difference for paladins, who have so few spell slots that regaining even just one can make a difference.
We really would like to be excited for new revisions to the ranger class, but we’ve been let down too many times to believe this will ever lead to anything. Jeremy Crawford has explicitly and repeatedly said they have no intentions of releasing a new ranger. That said, we would wholly support these variants being part of an official release, especially the changes to Ranger’s Companion, with a one caveat: the Deft Explorer feature’s benefits.
Overall, the design of this feature is wonderful. It has multiple benefits and allows you to choose which ones you wish to pick in which order. We would prefer to see more options than the number of allowable choices so that each ranger gets to be that much more unique, but more features should follow this design philosophy.
The real problem with it, however, is the benefits themselves, which are either inferior or inappropriate alternatives to those of Natural Explorer, or which are outright broken.
Natural Explorer grants expertise in all Intelligence and Wisdom checks in your favoured terrain, which can reasonably be any skill in which you are proficient because the game uses ability checks not skill checks. This is replaced by Canny, which is another one of those annoying features that tends to be only half as useful because it wants to give proficiency in skills you’re probably already proficient in because of your background, race, or your starting class skill selection (an elven ranger with the outlander background has six of the 10 options of this benefit). The doubled proficiency bonus is nice, but Natural Explorer grants that, in theory, to every single skill instead of just one.
On the one hand, this is mechanically better than the travelling benefits it replaces from Natural Explorer, but on the other hand it is also less flavourful. Rangers are supposed to be the ultimate wilderness survivalists, and this is more clearly evoked in the Natural Explorer feature. Since the ranger is a class that attracts players interested in playing a certain character archetype, we have to wonder if this variant is really suitable to the class.
Oh, boy. This is one that probably should have raised red flags before it was released. The free temporary hit points are fine, though they seem without justification. The more troubling element of this benefit is the exhaustion management. A Berserker (barbarian) who takes a one-level dip into ranger could turn every rage into a frenzied rage knowing that the exhaustion level will be cleared at the end of their post-battle rest. This normally requires a long rest, a potion, or a 5th-level spell (greater restoration) to clear, but with this variant it could be had for free.
Maybe making the exhaustion management contingent on a successful Constitution saving throw would make it less prone to abuse, but as is, this benefit should be reconsidered.
A new Cunning Action option, Aim, allows the rogue yet another way to be able to trigger sneak attack by granting themselves advantage on their next attack roll. It comes with a restriction about moving on the same turn, which makes it a tactical decision.
New Font of Magic options really suit the theme that sorcerers are so suffused with magic that they can use it to empower their actions, though the new Metamagic options trod a bit of familiar ground already covered by feats—useful if your DM doesn’t allow feats, but less exciting than some of the other variants.
One benefit that’s easy to overlook is the expanded spell list. Nine new spells for a class known for being starved of versatility is quite a blessing. Now if the sorcerer’s number of spells known was updated to match that of the bard, this class might see a lot more attention.
Fully one third of the new eldritch invocation options are designed for a new Pact Boon option: the Pact of the Talisman. In its regular form, the talisman is rather forgettable, granting a bonus d4 on ability checks where you don’t gain proficiency, but it can be improved with invocations. Other invocations provide some useful benefits to other Pact Boons, with the Pact of the Chain receiving some fairly significant improvements on the familiar, including the ability to fly and attack.
What do you give the class that already has more than any other? Well, apparently four new spells and the ability to swap a cantrip when you level up (see Cantrip Versatility, above).
Putting It All Together
The new Unearthed Arcana really knocked it out of the park with the sheer volume of content. While some of the new variants may be lacklustre or unfeasible, we should appreciate the hard work that went into preparing this and give the new options a fair chance to prove themselves. As with all playtest material, DMs are under no obligation to allow this content at their table, and some of it may require fine tuning. These rules are written in pencil, not ink, and if you find yourself implementing effective solutions to unforeseen problems with the new rules, you can help the playtest process by sharing that with the community and Wizards of the Coast. Our beloved game continues to evolve and expand, and it’s major overhauls like this that keep it fresh. So a big thank you to Mike Mearls and the rest of the design team on this one.
Did you have thoughts of your own on the new Unearthed Arcana? Something to add to our evaluations? Let us know in the comments below!