Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted take a closer look at Unearthed Arcana 2020 — Subclasses Revisited. The latest playtest document from the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons design team brings revisions to subclasses from previous Unearthed Arcana documents. In this case we see the Phantom rogue, Genie warlock and Order of Scribes wizard. In previous documents these were the Revived, Noble Genie and Archivist respectively, with the last one reimagining a subclass for artificers during an Unearthed Arcana pass before we got the official version in Eberron: Rising from the Last War. While Dave and Ted go over the subclass specifics in the video, here we’ll look at these 5E D&D playtest subclasses revisted with curiosity about what sort of characters they might represent. So let’s get into it.
As always the material presented in Unearthed Arcana is playtest content to inspire your imagination, with mechanics given in draft form. Based on feedback surveys and internal refining this material may one day appear as official content in a 5E D&D book. Until then these subclasses aren’t officially part of the game, which basically means they’re not permitted in Adventurers League, and if you’re creating a character for a campaign it’s wise to check with the Dungeon Master before incorporating any of this content.
The rogue, warlock and wizard subclasses in this Unearthed Arcana result from precisely those kinds of feedback and revisions. These three received positive feedback but the design team determined they need some extra development time and shared with the community to participate in the process. Character options in these playtest documents could be more or less powerful than official material, and rarely account for multiclassing potential at this stage, a couple of things the document encourages you to keep in mind.
But for me, in the context of telling stories together of characters who rise to become heroes while battling monsters, exploring fantastic places and discovering incredible treasures I’m more curious what kinds of people follow these paths. Mechanics and number crunching can stay back at the tavern for this exercise. What circumstances and situations might entice or compel a person to tread the precarious line between life and death, bind themselves to an immortal elemental or imbue a magical tome with a sentience all its own?
“Many rogues walk a fine line between life and death, risking their own lives and taking the lives of others. While adventuring on that line, some rogues discover a mystical connection to death itself. These rogues take knowledge from the dead and become immersed in negative energy, eventually becoming like ghosts.”
I’m just going to flat out tell you whether its Revived or Phantom or whatever the next iteration is, this is Harry Keogh, Necroscope to me. The book series captivated me as a kid and I’ve considered the potential for the 5E D&D character option for quite some time. If I’m honest I bounced off this Roguish Archetype in the original version and even this new one but at the end of the day it does a satisfying job giving me tools to explore the concept.
In the novel series Harry Keogh is a necroscope, someone who can communicate with the dead peacefully and without physical interference as a type of ESP. He befriends these spirits, who share their knowledge and skills with him and over time the dead connect with each other through him, enriching their afterlife experience. Coming from this perspective what I disliked about this rogue subclass is where it strayed into more overt supernatural features like shooting death rays out of your hands. But at the end of the day 5E D&D is still a game with prevalent combat so I can accept this part of the subclass. Phantom improves this quite a bit for me since now it’s more like the dead you’ve inured yourself to are helping you with their Wails from the Grave.
So as to who might pursue this Roguish Archetype, grim folk with a penchant for death need not be the only sorts of people drawn to this subclass. Your Phantom rogue could be an optimistic, cheery friend to those beyond the veil. I know my eventual Phantom rogue certainly will be. Playing this rogue character could really develop into a rich roleplaying experience if players and DMs enjoy imagining the spirits on the other side as individuals. I’d really, really like to see speak with dead incorporated into the final version of this subclass somehow.
“You have made a pact with one of the rarest kinds of genie, a noble genie. Such entities are rulers of vast fiefs on the Elemental Planes and have great influence over lesser genies and elemental creatures. Noble genies are varied in their motivations but are all arrogant and wield power that rivals that of lesser deities. They delight in turning the table on mortals who so love to bind genies into servitude, readily entering into pacts that expand their reach across the multiverse.”
Confession time: warlock is the only 5E D&D character class I have never played. They’re cool and fun and thematic but nevertheless don’t appeal to me. Perhaps all the components are just too noodly for my taste. But if I did play one I’ve always felt like sticking to the theme and flavor of any particular Otherworldly Patron by selecting all my spells from the Expanded Spells is the way to go. The Genie doubles down on this idea general genie spells along with selections specific to one of the four types of genies you can strike a bargain with — dao, djinni, efreeti or marid.
A character who makes this deal makes me think of someone enamored of the particular element or a foolish mortal who only considers the power genies wield and ignores the drawbacks, like being bound in servitude. In either case there’s a component of arrogance, which fits perfectly with the sort of entity who becomes their Otherworldly Patron.
This iteration of The Genie packs some serious flavor but with what we’ve just considered it loses a major quality present in the previous version. The Noble Genie felt more like your warlock character was a genie surrogate, bestowing your magic on other creatures. The Genie seems to want to make the character into a genie themselves but on a much more individual level. They seem too much like blasters with a neat vessel haven.
For a future revision I’d like to see something in the middle between the two, with The Genie warlock representing traditional genie vibes for their own allies. The Genie patron might enjoy granting their supplicants a fraction of their power, rewarding their arrogance but tempering it with the same constraints they suffer — being a powerful creature used primarily as a conduit for others to benefit from their power.
“Among wizards, the Order of Scribes is the most bookish. It takes many forms in different worlds, but its primary mission is the same everywhere: recording magical discoveries in tomes and scrolls so that wizardry can flourish. And while every wizard values their spellbook, a scribe in the Order of Scribes dedicates themself to magically awakening their book, turning it into a trusted companion. All wizards study their spellbooks, but a wizardly scribe talks to theirs!”
The awesome thing about wizards in 5E D&D is regardless of their Arcane Tradition they can always sling spells from a huge variety of choices. An Order of Scribes wizard doubles down not on the spellcasting side of wizardry though, but instead on the scholarly side. A character taking up this tradition smacks of someone more interested in the journey than the destination. Discovering and cataloging knowledge outweighs putting it into practice, making this a really unique and very cool wizard subclass.
Truth be told while I didn’t dig Onomancy a whole lot there’s elements from that Unearthed Arcana subclass I could see incorporated into Order of Scribes before the final version emerges. It certainly spoke to the scholarly nature of this fun and flavorful Arcane Tradition. As more and more subclasses get developed whether from official 5E D&D sources or third party creators (like ourselves — we create fresh content for DMs and players alike to drop right into your games every month) they open up spaces for very specific and specialized character concepts. This is a great development because they expand the breadth of storytelling.
An Order of Scribes wizard might be strictly academic, shying away from fighting monsters and casting fireball in lieu of focusing on magic to communicate and gather knowledge. It’s not difficult to imagine fellow party members similarly averse to violence, and a campaign where the combat dial is turned way, way, way down. This wizard would find a comfortable home in a D&D academia setting for example. Though I often reiterate a major component of D&D is overcoming monsters, I’ll also be the first to point out overcoming them doesn’t mean slaying them. A clever party of adventurers including an Order of Scribes wizard could take a campaign from 1st to 20th level without killing anything, in the right kind of game.