Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted share their arcane research into Unearthed Arcana 2020 — Spells and Magic Tattoos. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Unearthed Arcana present something other than subclasses. We saw Class Feature Variants last November, a couple of takes on the artificer around spring 2019 and Sidekicks in Dec. 2018. It’s a terrific treat to see something different! Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing new subclasses (almost as much as designing them) but expanding what fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons can do beyond character class features gives us more tools to explore our worlds as we tell stories of fighting monsters and finding treasure as they progress in power. In the case of \this latest playtest material I’m thinking about interesting ways to add content from the Unearthed Arcana document into 5E D&D campaigns.
Spells and Magic Tattoos for the Dungeon Master
A Dungeon Master can include as much as as little material as they desire for their 5E D&D campaigns, which makes Unearthed Arcana of any sort easy to add to a game. In the case of character options simply inform players they can use the additional material for character creation and development. All the classes with spellcasting as a core class feature receive a bump in from this document. Wizards come out on top with the most new spells added to their list. Of course you can add these new spells to any class spell list if you want.
You can also sprinkle in new spells as treasure and rewards. Any spell scroll might contain one of these new spells, and if the players aren’t familiar with this Unearthed Arcana this is an even more enticing option. Imagine the surprise when the party discovers a scroll with otherworldly form or spirit shroud. Taking it a step further these new spells present a wonderful opportunity for spellcasters to learn more about their magic from expert sources.
A cleric visiting with higher ups in their religious order could learn about these hidden mysteries. Introducing new spells this way gives a chance for roleplaying, and the cleric character can interact with others who share their faith. You might consider adding these new spells as Domain Spells, or perhaps the character must make a pilgrimage to a holy site in order to commune with their deity or meditate on their values before gaining access to a spell. This could require traveling to a different location for each new spell.
Similar scenarios can develop through any of the other classes and their new spells. Bards who learn of such magic may need to seek out other bards and convince them to share their knowledge. Druids and rangers could perform special tasks for beasts, fey and elementals before they’re able to summon those spirits. Paladins must complete a quest, sorcerers need to perform rites to unlock the magic in their blood and warlocks petition their Otherworldly Patrons. Wizards necessitate research, and there’s some built in mechanics for adding new magic to a spellbook already.
In the case of magic tattoos the floodgates open. These magic items are quite a bit different than the standard sort. Learning they exist is one thing and finding a tattoo artist capable of applying them is quite another. But a quick and easy way to include magic tattoos as treasure means they can merely appear on characters as a reward. Protip: Make sure to discuss with players before modifying their characters this way with permanent changes to their body as some players may not appreciate this outcome. If the players are down for it, literally anything can apply these magic tattoos to their bodies. A magical explosion, a planar rift or longterm exposure to weird energies in a dungeon might all manifest as magic tattoos.
On the flip side all these new spells and magic tattoos become tools for a DM to create new creatures. Spells are easy enough to add to a spellcasting creature’s spell list. Individually any spell can become a trait or feature for an existing monster to punch it up a bit. Maybe you borrow a bit from fourth edition D&D and give a bog standard mage from the Basic Rules a special feature when they become bloodied (less than half their hit points). In desperation the mage draws on the magic of the Upper Planes or Lower Planes and assumes an otherworldly form as a last ditch effort to destroy their enemies (the adventuring party).
In the case of the various new summoning spells, they’ve got new creatures right there for you to use too. The spells are terrific but a standalone spirit can be fun. As a side note you any of these stat blocks could be useful for generic creatures too. I’ve certainly run games without a Monster Manual around and sort of spitballed creatures on the fly. Any of these spirit creatures would make a fine stand in for generic aberrations, beasts, fey, elementals, fiends, monstrosities, celestials or undead. Likewise the magic tattoos offer a wealth of new traits and features you can slap on any creature. Bonus if magic tattoo transfers to the character who deals the final strike.
Spells and Magic Tattoos for the player
When it comes to Unearthed Arcana and new character options I am a huge fan. Opportunities to play 5E D&D arise quite often as you might imagine so trying out new things holds great appeal. However, it’s not so much any funky new mechanics that appeal to me. Rather it’s how those new things inspire my imagination to create new characters.
The new spells in this Unearthed Arcana are very thematic and let’s face it mostly about the summoning. Like many 5E D&D players and DMs the existing summons and conjurations feel kludgy and sometimes disruptive. I’m thinking specifically of times when what I thought would be a fun combat encounter ends before the monster even does anything after 8 wolves show up and take it down posthaste. But these new versions of summoning spells feel a lot more like Final Fantasy style summons. I love how the summoned spirits scale up and we’ve played around with similar mechanics in our own Out of the Box book.
Approaching your DM about including any new spells is one thing, and in my games I’m wide open to new character options players bring to the table. But what about magic tattoos? They’re presented as magic items in the Unearthed Arcana, an area of the game players typically have little control over. You might express interest to your DM, who then may or may not include them as treasure or rewards in your campaign.
Here’s an idea you might pitch to your DM. You can substitute a magic tattoo for a class feature you earn through progression. Consider that the Dungeon Master’s Guide breaks down magic item rarity by character level. A character might swap a magic tattoo for one of their features, or even retroactively substitute something gained earlier in their adventuring career. Since each class gains core and subclass features at different levels, we’ll use the Magic Item Rarity chart in the DMG as a template.
- 1st-4th — Substitute class feature gained from these levels with one uncommon or lower magic tattoo
- 5th-11th — Substitute class feature gained from these levels with one rare or lower magic tattoo
- 12th-16th — Substitute class feature gained from these levels with one very rare or lower magic tattoo
- 17th-20th — Substitute class feature gained from these levels with one legendary or lower magic tattoo
This is a fast and dirty idea and if I tested this in a game I would probably make it a bit more noodly. For example I’d suss out a good balance of substituting one tattoos of the appropriate rarity or several lower ones and add language similar to swapping out spells whenever a character gains a new level.
Spells and Magic Tattoos for players and DMs
Collaborative space is where we’re heading last. This area overlaps with the DM ideas in the sense that in game content results from outside the game except here it’s initiated by the players themselves. I imagine there’s tremendous numbers of players out there who love the idea of magic tattoos, but again they’re presented as magic items — an area relatively off limits to players (higher starting levels notwithstanding).
Once a DM knows about the player interest though, things being to move. Do all of the adventurers desire magic tattoos? That’s a quest they can undertake together. Like a lot of campaign ideas we share here on the website, a group quest for magic tattoos provides a vibrant backdrop for any kind of adventures without pigeonholing everything into the same theme. What I mean is the variety of adventures and setting encounters does not need to be exclusively about tattoos from start to finish, but it can give a context and suggest some themes to explore as a group.
The same goes for spells, and here again I’m going to focus mainly on the summon spells since they make up the bulk of the Unearthed Arcana content. I mentioned Final Fantasy earlier and if you’re familiar with the video game series there are a whole bunch of games where finding and acquiring specific summons forms the basis for quests. These become player driven quests when they’re motivation is adding this new magic to their repertoires and it becomes a fantastic DM tool for designing adventures when you know this.
The lowest level new summon spell is the 2nd level summon bestial spirit, so right from the get go you can start a campaign for 1st level characters seeking to unlock this spell. In our own free Arbor Jade adventure there’s a side quest involving a corrupted wood woad, a tainted forest and maddened beasts and the party can engage in a complex skill challenge to calm things down. Something like this would make a fine finale to an adventure with a reward from the nature spirits to summon bestial spirit.
I’m very enamored of all these new summoning spells! The idea of playing a caster who calls on various entities depending on the situation sounds like a ton of fun to me, and I’m eager to explore these ideas more. Perhaps our monthly Patreon early access products will see more of these ideas before they reach the store here on the website. But I want to know your favorite part of this document. Is it some of the other spells, or the magic tattoos?
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