Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants Impact on 5E D&D

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Over on Nerdarchy the YouTube channel, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted took a long look at the most recent Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants. There’s a ton to unpack in the 13 page playtest document. For me these class feature enhancements and replacements illustrate more of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons original design intent of modular content for our games than the actual core rulebooks. Sure, there’s feats and multiclassing and stuff, but I’ve been playing 5E D&D since the D&D Next days and I’ve only met one person for who really considers those optional and not included in their games. Even the Uncommon Races (dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc and tiefling in the Player’s Handbook) allude to them as optional, and in practice they’re essentially ubiquitous. Two concerns come to mind as regards Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants. And since Dave and Ted break down what these variant options are, let’s get into what they might mean.

Class Feature Variants — are they really?

I totally get it. Creating new Class Feature Variants keeps 5E D&D fresh, addresses some issues players express about particular class features and provides options for players to try new things and enjoy the game we love in different ways. If this Unearthed Arcana playtest material becomes official content in a future product, I’ll add it to my collection and incorporate the options into my games. It’s cool, I love new stuff! And here at Nerdarchy we love creating new stuff ourselves.

But there’s a caveat.

“The DM decides which of these options are available to the characters in a campaign. A DM is free to prohibit these variants, allow all of them, or make a subset of them available to you.”

The statement above, from Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants, expands on the concept of 5E D&D modular content. Dungeon Masters already include content restrictions in their campaigns, and this is nothing new for 5E D&D either. Since the earliest days of the game, worldbuilding DMs tweak the core rules and features for their settings. There might be no gnomes in their world, or only wood elves. Certain spells might not exist, multiclassing or dual-classing might be restricted, or any number of changes to whatever’s printed in the PHB affect players’ experience.

But how optional is optional content in practice? As a DM I am open to just about anything. When a player creates a character with content I’ve unfamiliar with I certainly look it over first, and chances are good I’ll be on board. Unusual new material doesn’t devalue my campaign setting or negatively impact my ability to help the players tell the story of their characters. And I can’t think of a time when I played with a new group, either for a one shot or longer campaign, when it did. The open availability for us gamers to meet and play games with new people all the time is the most fantastic part about this golden age of D&D we’re enjoying at the moment.

So what happens when Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants becomes Official Content — Class Feature Variants? On one hand the situation remains the same. A DM can explain to players for a new campaign what modules of material are restricted and players create characters accordingly. I guess my concern with this content is so different than what we’ve got from 5E D&D so far I feel like it will become as “optional” as feats and multiclassing — the two explicitly optional sets of rules for customizing your character. Since there are so many class feature variants, many of them superior to the material in the PHB, are they really variants?

Before you think I’m telling Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants to get off my lawn, I’m absolutely not. These options are terrific in so many cases. I love the versatility they bring for several classes. A more skilled barbarian, druids with wild companions, new metamagic for sorcerers and so many more open up new doors for players to explore with tried and true classes. But in a scenario where people play so many games with new friends so often online, at conventions and game stores, I’m concerned a DM will have to come to the table with even more forethought about what variants are okay to use or not. There’s plenty of material beyond the PHB for players to draw from like new subclasses in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and new races from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, but here we’re talking not about new content adding to what players know, this is changing what we already have. It just feels like it might create awkward scenarios for players if there’s not clear conversations beforehand.

“Since we have been fighting a lot of fire-based creatures, my sorcerer will replace fireball with vampiric touch after our long rest.” — Player using the Spell Versatility enhancement to Spellcasting

“Your sorcerer will do what now?” — DM who has no idea what Spell Versatility is or that vampiric touch is on the expanded sorcerer spell list

At the end of the day, I trust the D&D design team to create and present fun new content for our 5E D&D games so I’m not really sweating it. Players in my games can feel free to incorporate these Class Feature Variants into their characters and we’ll continue having great experiences creating stories together and rolling funny-shaped dice.

Now this makes a lot of sense

In a video interview with Todd Kenreck on the D&D Beyond YouTube channel, lead rules designer of Dungeons & Dragons Jeremy Crawford talks about the design process for Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants. One very important idea he discusses really tied the content together. He explains how differences in how people play 5E D&D inspired a lot of the design choices.

Groups play through adventures and campaigns in a wide range of progression. Some groups play through campaign stories like Tomb of Annihilation in a few weeks, for example. Some groups play lots of short campaigns or one shots. Some group take years and years to complete an entire campaign. Character progression through the lens of campaign length means many of these Class Feature Variants make those experiences more exciting and meaningful.

In my home group, we played a 5E D&D Spelljammer campaign for several years. Characters began at 1st level and over the course of I can’t even guess how many hours or sessions reached 10th level. We played about twice a month, and we used a sort of milestone advancement so they leveled up after certain key events. This meant they’d spend quite a few sessions at the same level. See where I’m going here?

Many of the Class Feature Variants take leveling features and put them on a long rest timer. Spell Versatility is a strong example of this and if I’m honest my first reaction to the entire playtest document was whoa, this feature is crazy! But after hearing Jeremy’s explanation and considering my own experiences, I definitely see the reasoning and value in these sorts of feature options.

Like Dave relates in the video above, there is part of me looking askance at the whole Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants material. There’s an element of sameness resulting from a lot of these optional features; smiting rangers and punching fighters come to mind. But one of the best things about 5E D&D is not how versatile the material is, but the players enjoying the game. What feels weird to me might help create the best D&D experience ever for someone else, and that’s awesome.

You can find Unearthed Arcana — Class Feature Variants here.

Nerdarchy creates a fighter/monk drunken tactician character using Class Feature Variants here.

Nerdarchy creates a spellcaster ranger character using Unearthed Arcana here.

Check out more Unearthed Arcana and leave feedback for the 5# D&D team here.

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy, he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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