Unearthed Arcana Digest (Part 1)
D&D 5e is about to celebrate its sixth birthday! With all the momentum that the hobby has gained in recent years, it seems like the system has been around much longer. Wizards of the Coast has done a fantastic job of continually supporting players with free content, mainly in the form of Unearthed Arcana playtest material. Much of this material is eventually finalized and compiled in books like Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. But there’s still a lot of material out there. In this article, we’ll take a look at some UA content that makes me feel refreshed and excited to keep playing with this system.
Class Feature Variants
This material came out late in 2019 and was one of WotC’s largest UA articles, featuring new options for all nine of the classes found in the PHB. Personally, I think it’s probably the best update they’ve done because most of the additions add a lot more versatility for your character. After five years of 5e, character builds were starting to seem a little stale, and some of the classes had become a little neglected. The feeling of being “locked in” to your class options (those same ones your friend had in the previous campaign) became a little too familiar.
Naturally, if you are relatively new to the game, this feeling might not have hit you yet. And, if you’re very creative as a player, you could always spice up your characters in other ways. Nevertheless, it seemed like the right time to add some more variation to the base classes. Open up the page linked above and follow along with me as we explore some of these abilities!
A big feature that makes a character feel static (mechanically speaking), is that you pretty much don’t get an opportunity to develop new or more skill proficiencies throughout the course of your adventures. A few classes like the Rogue and Bard might give you more proficiencies as you level up, but that’s about it. Otherwise, you have to swap out your precious Ability Score Increases to take a Feat for some new proficiencies, and that gives many players some real hesitation.
What’s more, there was no built-in way for a character to even change or swap out one proficiency for another. Maybe your character has changed over the course of her adventures, or the direction of the campaign isn’t what you thought it would be when you originally created your character. When my paladin wants to become better at dealing with animals while traversing the dangerous jungles of Chult, there’s really no way she can accomplish this (aside from homebrewing a rule with your GM).
But now, with Proficiency Versatility, every time your character gets the Ability Score Increase ability: BAM! you can also switch one of your skill proficiencies (limited to your class’ level 1 skill list). This could represent a shift of focus in your character’s training, learning through trial and error, or picking up some tips and tricks from your companions. What’s even cooler (in my opinion) is that your character is evolving from not only what they gain, but also what they lose. Maybe the character started out as a coercive brute (Intimidate), but has learned that guile (Deception) or honeyed words (Persuasion) are more useful. Your character should be growing and changing from a narrative perspective, and this should also be reflected in their skills.
Other class abilities have been updated to allow some spellcasters more variation in their known spells. Spell Versatility (Bard, Ranger, Sorcerer, Warlock) allows you to exchange one known spell for a different spell from your class list at the end of any long rest! One of the biggest aggravations with playing one of these casters is that your known spells are completely unalterable until you gain a level (and this amounts to only one or two different spells being added/swapped). This is a huge restriction and is partly why Sorcerers see less love than Wizards, for instance. But this ability, as well as the similar Cantrip Versatility (Cleric, Druid, Wizard), overcomes the potential anxiety of being absolutely stuck with your chosen spells.
This level of versatility also allows you as a player to test out different spells, combos, etc. that can affect how you play your character (see my article on this topic). This is an opportunity for you to have more fun and variety as a player and the opportunity for your character to develop narratively.
Finally, Martial Versatility is a feature for the martial classes (duh) which have the Fighting Style ability (Fighter, Paladin, Ranger). This allows you to change your character’s Fighting Style whenever you take a new level in one of these classes. My paladin took advantage of this ability after she had her shield-hand severed and could no longer make use of her Protection Fighting Style. RaW, my paladin would’ve been stuck with a useless ability for a lo-o-ong time (until she found a way to magically regenerate the hand). But with this enhancement to the Fighting Style ability, she had a chance to narratively overcome the grievous injury by retraining in a different style.
Now that we’ve covered some of the most general additions, let’s take a closer look at the class-specific options in this supplement.
As discussed in the Condition Combo article, martial classes seem to lack great options for inflicting conditions, which can alleviate the auto-attack feeling that you might run into. Unfortunately, the Barbarian doesn’t get anything to help with this. BUT, Survival Instincts is a very nice way to expand the barbarian’s repertoire for doing things outside of combat: proficiency - and expertise! - in two skills that are a good fit for the class. This frees you up to take some more variety in your barbarian’s starting skills, or even makes a two-level multiclass splash more enticing. This does replace the defensive bonus you’d gain from Danger Sense (advantage on Dex saves vs. effects you can see), but I think the skills that you can use actively is a better trade-off than the Danger Sense’s passive defensive bonuses.
Instinctive Pounce is kind of cool for those ragers who want more mobility in combat. This allows your barbarian to do a half-speed Disengage as a reaction so you can easily get to a different area of the fight: protecting your allies or charging a squishy enemy. Although this replaces Fast Movement, it’s a pretty good trade-off. Once you’re in combat, you’re probably not using all 40 ft. of movement anyway, and the Pounce also evades attacks of opportunity!
In addition to Spell Versatility, the Bard gets an expanded spell list: adding some cool options such as cause fear, color spray, command, mirror image, and slow. But the greatest enhancement for the Bard is Magical Inspiration: characters with a Bardic Inspiration die may spend it on a spell’s damage or healing roll. Importantly, this ability enhances normal inspiration instead of replacing an ability. This is a great boost for spellcasters who might not get as much benefit from the standard Inspiration options, especially when it comes to combat boosts. These inspiration dice basically increase the level of a cure wounds spell by one, or give a damage spell that little extra boost it needs to take down your enemies. Add an extra 1d6 to the Sorcerer’s dragon’s breath for a turn, yes please!
The Cleric gets a few new spells that beef up their low-level condition-inflicting powers: cause fear and wrathful smite being the most prominent, along with Cantrip Versatility. The greatest enhancement to the Cleric’s repertoire is an alternate use of Channel Divinity, Harness Divine Power. As a bonus action, you can spend 1 use of Channel divinity to regain a 1st-level spell slot. Granted, a 1st-level spell isn’t usually going to make up for a nice Turn Undead or Radiance of the Dawn. But, this ability does allow you to spend your 1st-level slots a little more freely, since you could gain one or two slots back later. And, if your other Channel Divinity options aren’t going to be of use in your current situation, an extra 1st-level slot just might be.
Lastly, we basically get an ability that combines two archetype abilities (Divine Strike and Potent Spellcasting) that normally come at level 8, based upon your archetype. Blessed Strikes allows you to add 1d8 radiant damage to a weapon or spell attack roll once per round. Although this is restricted to weapon/spell attacks (no more bonus to sacred flame), flexibility is the major boost here. This extra damage could be added to an opportunity attack, for instance. More importantly, this ability doesn’t shoehorn your Cleric into casting cantrips (extra damage from Potent Spellcasting) or weapon attacks (extra damage from Divine Strike). The Cleric becomes totally free to use whichever spells and tactics they deem best for the situation. I’ll 100% take an extra 1d8 for free on my inflict wounds!
Along with Cantrip Versatility, we get some more spells for the Druid. The new low-level options aren’t anything to write home about, but they do add some potent stuff with higher spell levels: cone of cold, dawn, flesh to stone, symbol, and incendiary cloud. The big boost for the Druid is the enhancement added to Wild Shape. Wild Companion is a nice way to give an animal companion (of sorts) to all Druids, regardless of archetype. Spend a use of Wild Shape to cast find familiar (no material components required) that lasts for as long as your Wild Shape transformation would’ve.
Naturally, this option is less enticing for Druids in the Circle of the Moon, as they tend to Wild Shape into more combative beasts. But for all the other Druids out there, you probably aren’t consuming all your Wild Shape uses between rests, so this gives you a nice alternative to make more of your signature ability. You could summon a little scout or messenger (who can even fly at low levels!), or have your familiar deliver some touch spells on the other side of the battlefield for you. PLUS, unlike a normal use of this spell, your wild companion can take different forms throughout the day without you having to re-cast find familiar(requiring you to expend 10 gp of specific material components). Versatility wins again: you’re always free to save your Wild Shapes for yourself, but when you want an instant furry companion, this ability is for you!
I’ve already mentioned Martial Versatility, which allows you to change your fighting style when you gain a level in any class that gives access to a Fighting Style. Again, this allows you to try out different play styles with your Fighter or switch things up based upon the party’s needs. At lower levels, Protection is a fantastic way to defend your squishy allies. But, as the party levels-up and gains access to more powerful abilities, spells, gear, etc., maybe your Fighter wants to slide into a bit more of an offensive role with Two-weapon Fighting. Or, perhaps your party found a powerful magic Greatsword, but you’d get no benefit out of it with your Dueling Fighting Style. No problem, your character (narratively) starts to focus his training on fighting with heavy weapons and upon reaching your next level, you switch to Great Weapon Fighting!
In addition to the versatility enhancement, a handful of new options were added for all classes with Fighting Styles: Blind Fighting, Interception, Thrown Weapon Fighting, and Unarmed Fighting. Each of these is a pretty cool option. Blind Fighting pairs great with allied (or enemy) casters using darkness or other spells that create heavy concealment! Also amazing for RPing a narratively blind martial character. Interception is a neat alternative to Protection: instead of granting disadvantage (which sometimes doesn’t even help your ally), you reliably reduce damage they would take. The average damage blocked is at least 7, so it’s definitely a great option at early levels. ALSO, it doesn’t require the shield like Protection does. Thrown weapon fighting is a little more niche: only good if you want a character that slings spears, daggers, handaxes, etc. Hmm. . . a skirmishing, handaxe-throwing Ranger? I love it! Lastly, we finally get a Fighting Style so you can build a decent brawler! Does as much or more base damage as a 10th-level Monk! AND makes you a better grappler! Sheesh, we might see an influx of full plate iron man Fighters!
All said, these are some amazing additions! To top it off, each Fighting Style class gets an alternate option of their own. The Fighter basically gets a free Battle Master maneuver and die (and Maneuvers can be now swapped 1 for 1 after any long rest!). This is very enticing for those of us who are a little tired of seeing too many Battle Masters at the table. Eldritch Knights, Arcane Archers, Samurai can now have maneuvers too (2, if you take the Martial Adept feat)! On top of a-a-all that, we get another handful of maneuver options, a couple of which are even roleplay-centric. (I’ve already spent a while on the Fighter, so I’ll let you check those out for yourself.) The Fighter certainly makes out like a bandit in this update!
The Monk is one of my personal favorite classes from way back! Sadly, it also seems to be one of the more neglected classes (both here and elsewhere). Monk Weapons gives you a little more choice of what kind of weapons you want to use, but there are quite a few restrictions. On the bright side, it does make racial weapon proficiencies (Elves and Dwarves mostly) more worthy of consideration. A battleaxe-swingin’ Monk sounds pretty sweet! Ki-Fueled Strike leaves a lot to be desired. Since you are likely making unarmed attacks with your action, you already can make an unarmed strike with a bonus action (no ki point required), or spend a point to Flurry. I guess it helps if you’re using your action to do other things in a combat situation?? ‘Just seems more flavorful than good.
We also only get a pair (womp womp) of new Ki Features: Distant Eye (1 point to negate disadvantage for shooting/throwing at long range) and Quickened Healing (2 points to roll your martial arts die, regaining that many HP). Rough. The first is very situational (unless you’re going for a thrower-style) and the second doesn’t seem worth the cost. I guess it’s a lot better at higher levels, when you have so many ki points per short rest, but very costly in the early and mid-tier game. Again, these are very flavorful abilities: using the Tao to hit a target at “impossible distances” and energy healing. I guess that’s really what you have to be into when you play a Monk these days. Flavor. So maybe these are not so bad, from a narrative perspective at least.
Along with all the general Fighting Style options, the paladin gets a unique one, Blessed Warrior, which allows them to get 2 Cleric cantrips (also able to swap out on long rests). Nice little way to be a more castery pally. They also get some sweet new spells: prayer of healing, warding bond, life transference, spirit guardians! Finally, they also get Harness Divine Power, just the same as the Cleric. This is even a greater benefit to the Paladin because each spell slot is more valuable for our divine warriors: fewer slots overall, and they can be used for smiting. Good stuff, but I’ll not say much more so we can get on to the rest (and Paladins are one of the most powerful, well-supported classes anyway).
As you might know, the 5e Ranger has been one of the most underused classes, and there was even an earlier UA update that gave us a Revised Ranger. Even after the update, the class still wasn’t quite there. BUT, with these new features (most of them optional alternatives to some of the Revised class abilities), the Ranger is the best it’s ever been!
Deft Explorer (replacing Natural Explorer) gives you three different options spread out at 1st, 6th, and 10th levels, AND you choose the order you get them. The options are: proficiency plus expertise in a skill and two languages; +5 ft. move speed plus swim AND climb speeds; and a decent temp HP generator that gets better with Wisdom (also quick exhaustion recovery). Maybe GMs will be encouraged to use exhaustion more, to punish non-Rangers? I like all of them and they promote different character builds: always good!
Favored Foe replaces the traditional Favored Enemy ability. Basically, you get some free hunters mark spells that also require no concentration. Hello there, beautiful! While Favored Enemy can feel cool if your campaign has long-term enemies of certain type(s), it’s one of those choices which locks you in early. If you choose the original option, hopefully your GM is working with you so that the ability wouldn’t be wasted. Otherwise, the new option is a much more reliable choice. Did I also mention the uses of hunters mark don’t require concentration?! (Just wanted to make sure the message was received.)
The Ranger gets Fighting Style options exactly like the Paladin, including Druidic Warrior (giving 2 Druid cantrips). Some of the new spell list options are good and flavorful for the Ranger too: entangle, enhance ability, meld into stone, tongues. Oh, and awaken! (Although by the time the Ranger can cast 5th-level spells, a sentient beast companion is a little late.) Primal Awareness replaces Primeval Awareness, and is basically a bunch of bonus spells all appropriately flavored for the Ranger. In my experience, Primeval Awareness doesn’t come up in play that often because it is another one of those very situational abilities. On top of a nice suite of bonus spells, each one you get from Primal Awareness can ALSO be cast 1/long rest without a spell slot. This is a great idea for a bunch of utility spells and helps you save your slots for other cool things (like the aforementioned entangle!). Thumbs up for more ways to inflict conditions!
Fade Away replaces Hide in Plain Sight. Essentially, this gives you a more effective, albeit short-term, ability to conceal yourself, replacing an indefinite but very restricted ability that does almost the same thing. Since you cannot move when using Hide in Plain Sight, I think this ability is pretty good for a hidden sniper kind of build, where you can keep firing on foes who can’t find you. Ultimately, I think Fade Away will almost always have more applicability to your situation than Hide in Plain Sight. But, you can still choose whichever one suits you.
Last, and definitely not least, are the two new Animal Companion options for the Beast Master archetype. These are pretty awesome. You’ve basically befriended an animal spirit of the air or earth that you can instantly bring back to full health with just a 1st-level spell slot! (I mean, it takes an action, but that’s not much for a completely renewed companion.) This allows you to flavor your Animal Companion however you want and each one has a nice signature ability - Flyby Attack for the beast of the air, and Charge for the beast of the earth - that makes it a good supportive combatant. Plus, it gets all of the upgrades of Companion’s Bond: using your proficiency bonus, increasing ability scores, etc. AND it also ends up with more HP than the usual animal companions. Want an owl who isn’t going to be taken out with a single hit and has Flyby Attack? This is the option for you! But, if you just want to have a normal beast friend, you can still do that.
The Rogue is by far the class that was most left out in the cold for this update. Although Rogues are a pretty popular choice at the table, they are also one of the most undifferentiated of all the classes. This is partly because between levels 3 and 9, the Rogue doesn’t get any new archetype abilities. A level 7 Assassin is pretty much going to be exactly the same as a level 7 Thief: the only difference is their 3rd-level abilities and (probably?) their skill choices. Sadly, this update doesn’t help alleviate that problem at all.
Instead, the Rogue gets an enhancement to their Cunning Action ability, which allows them to Aim. A bonus action to gain disadvantage on an attack (although forfeiting movement for your turn) is nothing to cry about. This really helps open up Rogues a little more to something other than dual-wielding. It’s especially good for Rogues who want to use ranged weapons to pick off their targets. When you’re fighting at range, you don’t care as much about forfeiting your movement AND you can give yourself sneak attack - and a better chance to crit - even if there are none of your allies near the target. Overall, I think this is a good combat buff for Rogues, but I think the overall class still needs a little work.
The sorcerers get some nice new spell options: flame blade, flaming sphere, and vampiric touch are among my favorites. Since Sorcerers can generally be in the thick of things a little more than the Wizard (due to better Con saves for concentration and buffs to AC, HP, etc.), melee combat-oriented spells like flame blade and vampiric touch are cool additions. And I’ve already covered the great benefit of Spell Versatility.
What’s really new for our Sorcerer friends is Font of Magic options. By spending 2 sorcery points, you could gain advantage on an ability check, make a weapon magical for a minute; or gain 1d4/point temp HP. None of these options are absolutely fantastic, but they add a little more flexibility to your sorcery points, which is always nice.
We also get new Metamagic Options: Elemental Spell (change the spell’s damage type), Seeking Spell (ignore cover bonuses against your attack or Dex save spell), and Unerring Spell (reroll a missed spell attack roll). The first two cost 1 point each and Unerring Spell costs 2. While the latter may seem a little steep, 2 sorcery points is probably a lot cheaper than converting those points into a new slot because you missed on the spell attack. Combined with the ability to use it after the initial attack roll and it becomes pretty good for trying to land an important spell. Ignoring cover bonuses is okay: it’s just very situational, and really depends on how much your GM uses cover. Elemental spell, on the other hand, is a big win. It allows your character to use their knowledge of enemy resistances, immunities, and vulnerabilities to your advantage. Or, it helps you specialize for certain kinds of elemental damage: a great combo with the Elemental Adept Feat!
The Warlock gets a lot of love in this update: Spell Versatility, new spells to their list, and nine new Invocations! (Really wish WotC would’ve put some more effort into the Rogue rather than the Warlock, but I digress.) Along with the Invocations, we also get a new Pact Boon - Pact of the Talisman. This one is neat because the talisman can be given to other party members, granting a 1d4 bonus to all ability checks that don’t include a proficiency bonus. With some of the Invocations, the talisman also gives +1d4 to (non-proficient) saves, allows the wearer and the warlock to teleport to one another, or deal some retributive damage. All in all, the talisman pact is a cool option for Warlocks who want to beef up their own weaknesses or help other party members a bit more.
Some of the other Pact-based Invocations allow some more versatility for the Warlock. Warlocks in any type of armor they want? Yup! Advantage on Constitution saves for concentration? Awesome! Giving your familiar an attack by using your bonus action? Can’t wait for the hit-and-run invisibility shenanigans with an imp/quasit. Save a handful of people from dropping to 0 HP each day? Roger. And even an Invocation that improves your familiar: giving it an extra type of movement, dealing magic damage with its attacks, and using YOUR spellcasting DC for its abilities. Naturally, all of these Invocations aren’t available to every Warlock, since they’re keyed to different pacts. But hey, there’s something in there for everyone!
At last, we come to the Wizard. The only things our intelligent casters get is Cantrip Versatility and a grand total of - wait for it - 4 new spells. That’s it. However, Wizards are already the most versatile casters, so I’m not worried that they don’t get much in this update. I like the addition of augury and divination: new rituals always float my boat. The other two, enhance ability and speak with dead are okay, but nothing to write home about. Not much more to say here. The ability to swap out cantrips on a level-up is really all I wanted here, so more time could be spent upgrading the other classes (didn’t work out so well for the Rogue though).
Overall, I think there are quite a few great additions to the 5e base classes from this update. I think WotC made good decisions about how to make the classes a little more versatile and added some abilities that are great temptations to try out new builds. And that is never a bad thing. For my money, the Ranger and Warlock ended up with the best new stuff for their classes, with an additional shoutout going to all the new Fighting Styles and flexible spell options for casters who don’t prepare their spells.
One area of disappointment for me was the continued failure to make use of conditions, especially for the martial classes. Inflicting conditions could maybe fall more to class archetypes instead of the general class abilities. (But, should they have to?) Inflicting certain conditions could definitely be more of a focus in a specialized archetype. Still. . . I think the martial classes could use a boost in this area regardless of your chosen subclass. But I guess that’s why we still need House Rules, right? Cheers to your next adventure, my friends!