Form Doesn’t Meet Function for Path of Wild Magic Barbarians from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted took a walk on the wild side to talk about the Path of Wild Magic Primal Path for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons barbarians. This unusual Primal Path is found inside Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Since my approach to D&D always centers on the story more than mechanics in 5E D&D the same as it did when I started playing the game with the classic Red Box whenever I check out new 5E D&D material from Wizards of the Coast, our own content or any other creators I’m most interested in how these characters, objects and places inspire the gaming experience. This applies whether I’m the Dungeon Master or not and my perspective often surprises people, these days mostly because of the sort of work I do. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced lots of exciting new subclasses to the 5E D&D and I’m gonna explore my own deep feelings about the Path of Wild Magic and what it brings to the table.Let’s get into it.
Storytelling through mechanics of 5E D&D
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything brings two new barbarian Primal Paths into 5E D&D and while Steven went beast mode for the Path of the Beast the Path of Wild Magic fills me with intense emotion so I staked my claim for this one. If someone asked me two weeks ago what I thought about this character option I’d have been all for it with enthusiasm if for no other reason than it’s something different for barbarians. But a change of perspective coupled with a very close look at this subclass plus an existing indifference for the concept of wild magic leave me dispassionate about this path and the otherworldly magic of these barbarians’ ancestors.
The biggest turnoff for me comes down to dilution of the game. In a lot of ways D&D is a victim of its own success. While new tabletop roleplaying games being created these days benefit from starting fresh with modern perspectives existing games — especially those with long histories like D&D — suffer from their own traditions. Part of the fun of D&D has always been tinkering with characters and discovering interactions between various features through things like multiclassing. This is still the case of course and the Path of Wild Magic doesn’t take away this aspect. At the same time new subclasses blurring the lines of each individual class strength starts to stray into a kind of sameness among all of them. In other words 5E D&D seems to be trying to emulate the open ended character creation and development other games are designed around by presenting more generalist subclass options, which simultaneously often feels like power creep.
This is not the case for the Path of Wild Magic though. A thoughtful look through this Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything subclass leaves me scratching me head in terms of both storytelling and mechanics. What is the story implicit in these Primal Path features? The most important impression I get is the primal ferocity represented by Rage instead symbolizes deep and abiding sensation across the emotional spectrum. Longtime D&D nerds might recall barbarians originally loathed magic and in fact earned more experience points by acts like destroying magic items. Fast forward to the Path of Wild Magic barbarians whose Rage opens them to act as a conduit for those energies. This sounds very cool but I can’t help but wonder what’s the point.
When I took a similar close look at the Fey Wanderer ranger from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything I shared my thoughts on how 5E D&D seems to be transitioning into the roleplaying game subgenre as a bonafide storytelling game, which de-emphasize rules in favor of creating a believable story and immersive experience for all involved. Path of Wild Magic barbarians further illustrate this because while the flavor of the subclass evokes some powerful story ideas it deviates so much from the core class identity. This is to say I don’t understand the draw to play a barbarian and choose a Primal Path trading off support for what they’re good at for watered down options of things they’re not. A weaksauce way of detecting magic — something every other spellcasting class does with varying ease all of which are better than this barbarian’s feature — can’t possibly make them a more effective party member than a feature bolstering what’s expected from them.
I’m sure lots of players will chafe at the perspective I’m sharing here and emphasize the storytelling potential but I’m not buying into this either. The story of a Path of Wild Magic barbarian feels like it would go something like this.
“There’s magic somewhere near,” says the Path of Wild Magic barbarian, opening their awareness to the presence of concentrated magic. “I can’t determine exactly where though.”
“It’s right there. I can see the faint aura,” says pretty much any other character class with detect magic, perhaps the warlock with Eldritch Sight who can do this all day. “Be a lot better if you could see your way into dealing more damage in combat…” they mutter under their breath.
A blunt force example no doubt but it does illustrate what I’m getting at, which is how the mechanics for this Primal Path don’t feel like they support either storytelling or crunchy optimizing. An eladrin Eldritch Knight packs the same emotional punch with a hugely better suite of features to support their strength as a fighter and provide vastly more versatile utility. If it’s the flumphs that appear and explode on enemies drawing the appeal I’d rather reskin magic missile or better yet absorb elements and call it a day. Pretend these spell effects happen of their own accord to simulate the storytelling part of being infused with wild magic.
I’m really putting the Path of Wild Magic through the paces because if I’m honest I simply don’t get what it’s going for, which is on me. What am I missing here? The text describes these barbarians as being transformed by magic and often seeking to manifest the otherworldly magic of their ancestors. But since the Wild Magic table touches on eight totally different ancestral callbacks I’m failing to see how an individual would feel satisfied by this circumstance on a character level. If I were playing a tiefling Path of Wild Magic barbarian and when I Raged flowers and vines temporarily grew around me and made the ground within 15 feet of me difficult terrain for my enemies I would not feel like I were manifesting the otherworldly magic of my ancestors.
Are you excited to play a Path of Wild Magic barbarian yet? Truth be told I’ve been feeling extra sassy lately and indulging my own hot takes when it comes to 5E D&D. This partly ties into what I mentioned earlier about a recent change of perspective. Basically the internal scales balancing narrative appreciation with mechanical crunch became more even. I still lean towards the storytelling side but at the end of the day 5E D&D is still a game and the mechanics can’t be discounted. I’ve played lots of barbarians over the years and editions and the fun of them is their devastating combat prowess so I wonder why there’s a subclass to weaken that aspect but only minimally support a different one.
But that’s just me. Maybe after perusing the class features below the Path of Wild Magic will sound like the perfect kind of juice. I’m certainly curious to see what others have to share about this Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything Primal Path. Real quick though before you dive into the class features overview take a moment to appreciate how much cooler a Path of the Barbhairian barbarian is than this.
Path of Wild Magic features
- Magic Awareness. These barbarians take a hard turn from pretty much every other Primal Path with this first feature, which grants the ability to pinpoint the source of a spell or magic item within 60 feet. Total cover blocks this sense, which limits it considerably. Presumably the idea is to sense what others cannot perceive except if the source is concealed it doesn’t work and if it’s not concealed it wouldn’t be too terribly difficult to find by mundane means.
- Wild Surge. The bread and butter for the Path of Wild Magic barbarian this feature triggers when a character rages and prompts a roll on the Wild Magic chart. Not surprisingly they’re all positive combat benefits for the barbarian. They’re fun and flavorful and I imagine lots of 5E D&D players will enjoy how these effects play out in their games. Players who get their kicks from lowering improbability and increasing desired probabilities almost certainly won’t like this feature because of the unpredictability. While the effects are all positive from the barbarian’s perspective there’s plenty of reason to be wary of any randomly produced effect falling flat because of particular circumstances. This feature would be a lot cooler if it provided interesting utility options to barbarians out of combat. As it stands I’m equating it along the same lines as The Undying warlock — an option so divorced from what the class does well that while it sounds cool more often than not probably leaves players wondering why they didn’t follow a better path. If all it does is give a damage bump with possibly a secondary effect there’s more reliable ways to achieve this. If it’s the flavor that’s the juice I’d just as soon reskin something else like Path of the Storm Herald.
- Bolstering Magic. The most interesting and useful of a Path of Wild Magic barbarian’s tricks this one leapt out at me back when it was first introduced in Unearthed Arcana. These barbarians are going to be every 5E D&D spellcaster’s best buddy as an arcana recharge station to regain expended spell slots. This isn’t outrageously powerful but definitely unique among class features. Alternatively the wild magic radiating off these barbarians can grant a creature a d3 bonus to attack rolls and ability checks for 10 minutes. This makes some nice utility I suspect most often used for others rather than the barbarian themselves. Barbarians probably don’t need much assistance in the attack roll department and when they’re raging they’re pretty good at ability checks with their main schtick anyway.
- Unstable Backlash. A reaction feature for any 5E D&D barbarian makes a nice perk. There’s very few to go around and this one triggers a fresh roll on the ol’ Wild Magic table with the effect taking place immediately. This carries the same caveats as the main Wild Surge feature itself and in some edge cases might wind up making a situation worse. Such is the nature of wild magic.
- Controlled Surge. At the pinnacle of Path of Wild Magic power these barbarians gain a measure of control over their Wild Surge. From this point on whenever the player rolls on the Wild Magic table they roll twice and choose one of the two results to take effect. Rolling the same result for both rolls means the player can simply choose any effect on the table to manifest.
Hopefully beneath the sass and snark the gist of these Path of Wild Magic features comes through. I would have dug this Primal Path a lot more if it cleaved to a particular extraplanar source more explicitly like the Feywild, Shadowfell, Nine Hells or whatever. This would make the storytelling aspect much stronger and the so too the features I imagine. A case could be made for many of the 5E D&D subclasses generally considered on the weak side that they’re useful in niche circumstances but I’m not even feeling this from the Path of Wild Magic. We’ve got a long way to go to cover all the rest of the subclass options from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything but as it stands right now this one’s leading the pack for least impressive. On the other hand if our own Path of the Barbhairian sounds more like something worthy of entangling with you’ll find a whole lotta support. Check out a breakdown of all the emanations from the Beard Dimension along with ways to add this stuff to your collection of 5E D&D content for free in many cases in this other post on the site here.
*Featured image — A wood elf Path of Wild Magic barbarian as seen in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]