Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted discussed the latest Unearthed Arcana 2020, Subclasses Part 1. The playtest document contains material for barbarians, monks, paladins and warlocks in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Fun fact: we were in the middle of our weekly video planning meeting last week when this new Unearthed Arcana came out. No brainer, right? We’re all big fans of 5E D&D so of course we eagerly want to read over and geek out about new character options. In the video Dave and Ted break down the crunchy stuff for the Path of the Beast, Way of Mercy, Oath of the Watchers and Noble Genie. But what sort of characters represent these exciting new subclass options? Let’s get into it.
The 5E D&D design team dropped some cool new Unearthed Arcana playtest material last week. Four new subclasses, for barbarians, monks, paladins and warlocks released into the wild. Whenever I read over and play any of new character options, if I’m honest I don’t really look closely at the mechanical components for balance, so spoilers: no deep dive into the math or combat implications. Instead I’m curious what sort of person finds themselves on these paths to adventure. Combat abilities of any new D&D subclass don’t really interest me as much as what they offer for exploration, how they support teammates and what sort of intriguing roleplaying opportunities they offer. The game isn’t all about combat, you know.
An unusual thought I had while looking over this Unearthed Arcana material is I wonder how a 5E D&D character would turn out if instead of choosing a single subclass, you took all the possibilities as menu items as your character develops and progresses gaining levels. I certainly do not mean multiclassing into the same class, but what would happen if players could choose from any of their classes subclass features when eligible. For instance when a character becomes a 9th level rogue, what if they could choose from among Infiltration Expertise, Steady Eye, Insightful Manipulator, Superior Mobility, Panache and Supreme Sneak. Food for thought.
There’s 5E D&D barbarians who embody the spirit of the wild like beasts through the Path of the Totem Warrior or manifest the raw power of unchecked nature following the Path of the Storm Herald but this barbarian needs no external source to bring the fury — it dwells within their heart and claws it’s way out to devastate anything in your path. Ever see The Howling? (Thankfully it doesn’t take roughly 30 rounds to transform.)
There’s not a lot to this Primal Path outside causing damage, which is what barbarians do best. I would have liked to seen something to go along with the wonderful Origin of the Beast table to give the Path of the Beast barbarian a bit more connection to their feral might. Something as simple as a choice of languages would be a terrific cherry on top of this flavorful subclass. Most times with post-Player’s Handbook content from the 5E D&D team they include really explicit suggestions for making the character your own. Suggestions to imagine what your character’s version of any given ability might be empowers players to take an even more active role in developing who their characters are and how they engage with the world. So for a subclass like this almost entirely giving personal combat options, it would be neat if your Origin of the Beast is “You are descended from a legendary druid, a fact manifested by your ability to partially change shape,” the barbarian gained the Druidic language. Something — anything — to give players more to explore than hurting stuff real good.
Path of the Beast barbarians do gain access to several movement abilities, which speaks to the exploration part of the game, but again these are all things that only benefit the barbarian themselves. It’s not until 14th level when they gain a feature to buff allies. I know, I know, high single target damage and tankiness are the barbarians’ forte. But I look at the Ancestral Guardian, Storm Herald, Totem Warrior and Zealot who all get features to help nearby allies by 10th level.
The other interesting thing about Path of the Beast is you’re not locked into any particular beast when you choose this Primal Path. You can manifest claws, a bite or a stinging tail chosen every time you rage. To me this indicates you are not the embodiment of a particular kind of beast, but rather all beasts. Seems kind of odd, but it is playtest material after all. Form of the Beast and Bestial Soul share a lot thematically, and I’d like to see both of these features expanded to include other sorts of beast qualities. Maybe shoot webs out like a spider, or get Pounce and Charge abilities. Ditch Infectious Fury and Call the Hunt and instead this barbarian gains skill proficiencies depending on their beast manifestation. Like Vixen, from DC Comics. That would be really neat. But maybe too close to Totem Warrior.
In many ways monks retain a sort of unknowable quality about them. They don’t use magic to cast spells in any conventional way like other casters, although they can create magical effects duplicating spells (and in a few cases technically they cast a spell). They don’t need to use weapons but can hone their bodies to become magical weapons on their own. They wear no armor but can hold a line with barbarians and paladins.
Monks are weird.
Monks following the Way of Mercy are really weird! Reminiscent of the Way of the Long Death, these monks represent the balance of life and death and they come across sort of creepy. Concealing your identity behind a laughing visage mask while you punch creatures with necrotic damage and emit a Noxious Aura doesn’t come across too merciful to me. But I get it, when faced with a thoroughly evil creature it is a mercy to end its existence. Like Path of the Beast barbarians, Way of Mercy monks come with a built-in flavorful feature in the form of their Merciful Mask. The way this is described makes me think of a greater organization of monks following this Monastic Tradition, and now we’re straying into worldbuilding territory. For a player, the Merciful Mask provides a fantastic opportunity to explore a character with a dual nature. When they don their mask they are centered and focused on their cause. When the mask comes off, they’re off the clock essentially. Does the character ever remove their mask and let anyone see their face? Maybe they are the only one with following this way…until they encounter another Merciful Masked individual on their adventures. But what does that mean?!
I’ve heard and read quite a few people relating the Way of Mercy to plague doctors. I know a little about those historical figures and I don’t it was general practice to kill patients or cause harm. So, maybe an unfair comparison. They did wear special masks though. I envision Way of Mercy monks more like holistic mystics who study physical and spiritual health, chakras and chi points, applying this knowledge to harm as well as heal. Who is your Way of Mercy monk beneath their Merciful Mask? It would be fun to play a character like this with completely separate personas, a mystery even to their adventuring companions.
A paladin who swears an Oath of the Watchers probably has a healthy dose of paranoia, right? In a 5E D&D world it’s not a delusion to suspect extraplanar threats to reality itself seeking chaos, destruction and power on the Material Plane, but these paladins shoulder a sacred duty to protect the mortal realm. And if you know with absolute certainty there really are supernatural dangers, how could you not remain suspect of just about everything? Even the warlock in your party receives their power from potentially such an entity. Reconciling this makes for some interesting group dynamics.
Relaxation might be a struggle for an Oath of the Watchers paladin. Conquering enemies, upholding justice, spreading peace, protecting nature, defending the law and punishing evil doers is one thing for other paladins to pursue. For an Oath of the Watchers paladin you can never let your guard down! Thankfully they receive several great Oath Spells to help navigate worlds teeming with extraplanar threats. Abjuration and Divination spells like augury and banishment make sense but others are odd selections, like chromatic orb. It would be neat to see things like locate object and locate creature instead.
The cool thing about a subclass like this gives Dungeon Masters fantastic opportunities to tailor adventures to characters in the group with minimal effort. A player with an Oath of the Watchers paladin probably imagines their character coming through in a clutch way when the party encounters things like elementals, fey, fiends and aberrations as well as cults devoted to such entities. Sprinkling these in the campaign here and there gives the player immense satisfaction. As a reward for the DM, there’s an excellent chance this player formulates their own theories on such creatures too. Are there more of them? Is there a growing presence threatening the region? With a little luck the players start taking adventures in their own direction and doing some heavy lifting for the DM. Built-in hooks to engaging with the campaign setting like this are always welcome.
What a kooky Otherworldly Patron for warlocks! All the various subclass options for 5E D&D warlocks represent an explicit relationship between the warlock and patron, but this one includes a few details making it different in theme and scope. The Noble Genie patrons are described as arrogant collectors of
creatures, knowledge and treasure. I would direct your attention to their signature feature, Collector’s Vessel that among other things tethers another willing creature to you (and your Noble Genie patron). Does this seem a little underhanded to you? Warlocks are mysterious, with an unknowable air. Imagine your companions’ reaction when they discover your helpful magics are binding them to some outside entity too!
Like Path of the Beast barbarians and Way of Mercy monks, warlocks with a Noble Genie patron come with a customizable doodad in the form of this Collector’s Vessel. This gives players another prompt to explore different facets of their character and make them their own. Granted, any character can do this. A fighter could have a particular longsword or a battle standard they hold dear. But I really appreciate the 5E D&D design team baking these elements right into the class descriptions.
I have not done a deep content analysis of all warlock Otherworldly Patrons either, but my gut says there’s a distinct difference with the Noble Genie. More than other patrons, this one describes what the Noble Genie’s goals and motivations are too. This is a tremendous benefit to the player! Lots of people love warlocks because of the patron relationship, and here you get a clearer idea what they might want their agents to do for them. Does your warlock perform special rite when they defeat significant creatures, sending their essence to the Noble Genie’s menagerie? Perhaps they sacrifice a portion of their treasure to fill their patrons coffers. What do they believe happens when they tether their friends and extend their patron’s protection to them?
This latest Unearthed Arcana 2020 — Subclasses Part 1 gives 5E D&D players a lot to think about, discover and playtest. It’s given me several ideas to ponder, new characters to try and new facets of a campaign setting to explore. All the fancy new mechanics and class features aside, I often wonder what it must be like for creatures living in these worlds, why they make the choices they do and how they engage with the setting and their adventuring companions. In that regard some of these four new subclasses feel a bit flat, while others inspire all sorts of thoughts and new ideas for roleplaying. Have you checked out this new playtest material? What’s your favorite, and least favorite? Check out Unearthed Arcana 2020 — Subclasses Part 1 here.