Re-Post: Unearthed Arcana Review: Modifying Classes

No intro. Fallouting. See y’all Thursday.

So…an Unearthed Arcana on class design? With specific examples of class options people have been asking for since…well, since the game came out? I’m in! Let’s dive in, shall we? Follow along, if you like.

Introduction and Class Design Primer

First up, we have a quick intro that discusses the idea of Class Options (the official name for Kits/Archetypes/Subclasses in 5e), as well as class design as a whole. It’s pretty basic, but one thing I want to bring up is that playtesting and revision is brought up twice in the first two paragraphs. This is great.

I only wish it was brought up even more throughout the document. All too often, amateur designers like myself will come up with an idea for a class, subsystem, spell, race, etc., and will fine-tune it for ages and ages before actually releasing it, not having seen the idea in actual play. This is unfortunate and stupid. I’ve personally done it more than a few times, especially in my Pathfinder days. I should really write an article purely about design some time. Consider it added to the long list of articles I would very much like to do, but probably won’t.

As it proceeds into talking about the design of Class Options themselves, it notes that you should use existing features as guidelines (or just straight-up steal them) when designing your own. This seems like a no-brainer. But this, too, is a major, early pitfall of design (particularly class design). Over-thinking new features and under-utilizing those that exist is the way to the dark side.

It also uses the word “story” when referencing class abilities. It proposes that a class’s abilities tell a story about that class’s place in the world. This is something that you don’t often see in class-design manifestos, but it’s totally true. I would’ve used the word “Narrative,” but the point is the same. Classes definitely have a narrative to them. Examining a class’s features, Ability Score Increases, and the order and rate at which it gains these abilities really gives you an idea of what this class is, as well as the kind of people who might be attracted to it.

I really like this piece of advice, actually. I don’t mean to edition war, here, but I’m about to. I remember playing Pathfinder, and one of the problems people tended to have was with the Fighter. It was bland, and boring. A ton of feats, a few static class abilities, and little else. The class didn’t really have a story. It just…kind of, well, got…stronger. That was it. The numbers increased, and little else. All that class really told you about characters who took levels in it was that they were good at hitting stuff and wearing metal on their bodies. You could spice it up with archetypes, but that didn’t really do it for me, since it was still just pasting cool stuff onto a really boring and bland frame. Compare this to the fighter of 5e. You gain a passive ability and an active ability at level 1: Fighting Style and Action Surge. This gives the impression of a specialized warrior who can occasionally push herself beyond normal human (or elf, or gnome, or whatever) limits to accomplish great tasks. That ability to push herself is expanded with Second Wind, and her specialization takes on a new aspect with the acquisition of a martial archetype. Other abilities like Indomitable and the various Class Option features only help to develop what playing this class and being this character is like. The class has a progressive narrative that helps the player to understand where they are, as well as where they’re going.

Getting Specific

Okay, I’ve rambled enough. The document then proceeds to describe each class’s core concepts, and the cares that should be taken when modifying them or adding new Class Options.

A few thoughts regarding these notes:

  • A few classes note that certain abilities focus on one of the three “pillars” of the game: Combat, Exploration, and Interaction. This is something that I think could have been emphasized more in the early section of the document. Three-pillar design is a strong grounding factor in 5e, and I feel that emphasizing it would really help.
  • It really throws into sharp relief just how many spellcasting classes there are when every single one reminds you that spellcasting is an integral part of the class that should not be toyed with lightly.
    • Speaking of which, they seem to imply that spellcasters exist on this knife’s edge in terms of balance, where screwing with them too much could make them dramatically more or less powerful. Personally, if part of your “modular” D&D system can’t be toyed with too much without breaking the game, you should have probably gone back to the drawing board on that one. Or you should just embrace imbalance when it comes to certain parts of your game.
  • It makes a point to note that certain powers which are traditionally offensive are instead heavily defensive in 5e. For example, while Rage does grant a bonus to damage, the major advantage to it is the damage resistance you gain. I feel that this encourages you to take a second look at features you might otherwise make assumptions about due to traditional, preconceived notions.
  • There are several notes on how the “feel” of classes is dependent on their abilities, and how many class features are actually symbiotic, like a Paladin’s spellcasting and his Divine Smite. Get rid of one, and the other has to drastically change.
  • A very strong note re: Rangers: Favored Enemy is INTENTIONALLY not tied to combat. The intent is that a ranger should be good in combat against more than JUST his favored enemy, and a DM should not arbitrarily control the strength of the character by holding back or allowing certain monsters.
  • The roguish archetype fundamentally changes the way that the rogue plays? Not in my experience. Every rogue in my game has basically played the same, with a few toys slapped on here or there. Your mileage may vary, however.
  • They’re basically admitting that the Warlock SHOULD have eldritch blast all the time, meaning that it’s a damn spell tax that should really just be granted for free at 1st level.

That’s probably too many thoughts, but whatever! I’m a thoughtful guy! So screw me!

I know what you really want me to talk about, though. The reason that anyone even downloaded this Unearthed Arcana. The one thing that made you go “YUP!” and click that link.

A Ranger Without Spells

Might I just say that I am so happy that this is a thing. Spell-less rangers rock, and I can’t understand why nobody seems to be able to do them justice. I can’t recall how they created one in 3.5, but I bet it included Spell-Like Abilities. And I remember that a Spell-less ranger in Pathfinder just added Spell-Like Abilities. HEY GUYS! IF WE WANTED A RANGER WITH SPELL-LIKE ABILITIES, THEN WE WOULD JUST PLAY A RANGER WITH FRIGGIN SPELLS!


This version, though, actually does a pretty good job, and in part reminds me of a spell-less ranger I’ve been working on. And there’s a good reason for that. We’re both drawing on the same source material: Tolkien. Rangers in The Lord of the Rings are not rangers in D&D. They’re skilled warrior-woodsmen. Wardens of the North. They’re explorers, soldiers, and healers. And while they may have a somewhat mystical connection to nature, they aren’t spellcasters. And this version captures that pretty well.

Before I discuss it, however, I definitely want to note that the introduction to this option is excellent. It discusses the risks in taking on a project of this magnitude, and conversationally discusses the thought process in each piece added to the ranger before actually presenting the option.

Let’s go through it, shall we?

  • Combat Superiority: This was a good choice. It adds combat prowess while also adding some interesting options to the character. And the fact that it’s actually a lesser version of the Battle Master’s Combat Superiority works well in keeping the two individualized. I do wonder if a player that chose the Hunter class option might have trouble juggling his abilities from that subclass with maneuvers, since they’re so similar. But that would probably vary from group to group.
  • Poultice: I wish this was more developed. I WISH! This was actually the thing that I was/am planning to make the core of my spell-less ranger. Poultices, potions, and mixtures that grant a variety of cool effects. Like the drugs in Far Cry 3, only with swords and bows…so, actually, just like Far Cry 3. As it stands, this version’s poultice does exactly one thing. Heal. It heals a lot, and I like it, but I wish it had some more versatility and development behind it.
  • Natural Antivenom: Eh. This is kind of a “whatever” ability. Resistance to poisons, and the ability to cure poisons with your poultice. Pretty bland, but effective, I guess.
  • Call Natural Allies: And this is that mystical connection to nature I was talking about. You can call on local beasts to fight on your side once per day? AWESOME! Seriously, this ability rocks in all the right ways. It’s effectively one of the Conjure spells, sure. But the fact that it’s actually fleshed out and not just listed as “Cast the Conjure Beasts spell once per day” really adds to the flavor, fun, and narrative of the class.
  • Relentless: Good for the Combat Superiority, but otherwise pretty “meh.”
  • Beastly Coordination (optional): This ability is interesting. On the one hand, it’s extremely effective, and would be very good for keeping your animal companion alive at high levels, where it really doesn’t stand a chance in the HP department. On the other hand, it really throws into stark contrast how I seem to ignore Share Spells on the vanilla ranger. I really shouldn’t. Then again, I basically ignore the spells themselves on the vanilla ranger.
    • Also, it reminds me that you should probably allow the ranger to apply poultices to his Animal Companion, since normally it can only be applied to humanoid creatures (a weird limitation. I’d probably allow it on beasts and certain others depending on DM discretion).
Also, The Favored Soul.

There’s also a Favored Soul in the document. But nobody gives a shit about the Favored Soul, so fuck that noise. Short version: it’s bland, but probably pretty good. And it’s always good to see new Sorcerous Origins, since we only got 2 in the PHB.

The end.

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