Thursday, February 6, 2020

What Do I Know About Second (?) Looks? Unearthed Arcana 2020 Subclasses Part 2 (D&D 5e) This Time, Officially Released


I'm doing something a little strange today. I'm reposting a blog, because I've already written a first impression of the topic. In this case, the Unearthed Arcana Subclasses 2020 Part 2 document was OFFICIALLY released by WOTC now, and it has some changes from the leaked version from earlier this week.

Before I start, however, I wanted to restate something I had said previously on social media elsewhere--there were some thematic problems I had with the Love Domain, and the CONTEXT of collecting the game mechanics that were collected made the domain worth discussing, and was something WOTC should have thought about when publishing.

However, none of the mechanics of the domain did anything that isn't already present in the Dungeons and Dragons rules. No one is doing something untoward in the space of time it takes to admire someone during a reaction, and all of the spells granted by the domain already exist in the game.

Nothing introduced in the previous version of this Unearthed Arcana radically altered Dungeons and Dragons. The best discussion should have come from how thematic elements can look differently based on the context in which they are arranged. Instead, a lot of internet comments made some extreme assertions about the rules, which many that didn't see the document took as a given and pass along in a game of hyperbolic telephone. 


To be clear, if someone told me they wouldn't feel safe playing in a game with the Love domain, as presented, I respect that, and understand that. But implying that the domain, divorced of actual play, was one of the most outrageous things to be introduced into the play space is disingenuous, and the commentary took on a life of its own, that still hasn't died down.

What follows is my original first impression, with red text to indicate where the final version of the Unearthed Arcana has changed.


I’ve been paying fairly close attention when new Unearthed Arcana drops, because I’ve been pretty fascinated with the most recent releases. For whatever reason, I didn’t even see the latest one until I found a link to it in Brandes Stoddard’s review on Tribality. I held off on reading his review until I finished mine, but I’m 100% certain you should read his, and it will be a much more reasoned approach to whatever I’m trying to say here. That said, let’s dig in.

Bard

The new bard subclass is the College of Creation, which evokes lore about connecting with the ancient song of creation to bring about manifestations through song. So far, I like the theme, and that’s been a something all of the recent Unearthed Arcana has been good at . . . having a strong theme for the subclasses.

  • At 3rd level, the bard creates a floating, magical note that orbits the recipient of their inspiration die. That note can be expended to produce a “kicker” effect depending on how the inspiration is applied:  extra damage if the inspiration was used for an attack, temporary hit points if it was used for a save, and for a reroll on the inspiration die when making an ability check.
  • I kind of like the whimsy of the floating magical note, and it’s a neat mechanical trick to add a kicker based on the way the inspiration is being used, but it does make me wonder how someone is going to feel if they had those temp hit points floating, just out of reach, because they never had to make a save. The reroll of the inspiration die is the least exciting, but it makes sense for that application of the inspiration die. I do think that it’s odd that Note of Protection mentions you only get temporary hit points if you don’t already have them. Almost every other temporary hit point effect in the game doesn’t care if you already have them, because if you accept the new temporary hit points, they replace the previous ones, and can’t be added to them. In fact, this section doesn’t have the usual temporary hit point disclaimer that shows up in these Unearthed Arcana articles.
  • At 6th level, you get Performance of Creation. You can temporarily create an item out of thin air, which, if you concentrate on it long enough, can exist for up to 10 minutes. This feels very much like something that is in keeping with the theme, but given the number of bardic colleges that get a directly combat effective ability at 6th level, I’m not sure how compelling this feature is going to be. I know, not everything is about combat, but at the same time, who wants to be the one person playing 100% to theme when everyone else is getting cool toys to blast monsters with? (This ability has been moved to 14th level, and expanded a bit. It still creates a temporary item, but the gp range is a little different, and it sticks around for a number of hours equal to your bard level--meaning you can definitely use this to play fairy godparent and whip up a coach for someone in need eventually)
  • Animating performance at 14th level lets you sing a non-magical item to life, which you can spend a bonus action on to direct it to do an action in its stat block, or Dash, Disengage, Help, Hide, or Search. It has variable hit points based on your level, and if it attacks, I can use its bonus action to dodge. I like this, and I wish we had this for our Disney Princess Curse of Strahd campaign, although this is a little bit late in the game to get a really neat toy like this. I wonder what a scaled-down version of this ability might look like in place of the 6th level ability. (This ability has been moved all the way down to 6th level. Given that the hit points of the object scale with your level, this most likely works--I'd have to see it in play, because it's a very nice combat "pet" ability)

Cleric

This Unearthed Arcana has a Love domain for clerics. It lists a lot of established deities from D&D and elsewhere that might have the domain, and then lists the domain spells.

Before I get too far into this, I want to throw out my idea about domains versus “regular” divine spells. Domains are the power of your religion that you are making manifest. Anything you get from your regular spell slots is “general” divine manifestation, but what you get from your Domain spells says something about your connection to that aspect of your god.

About half the spells on the domain list are spells that take away another character’s agency. I also want to point out that while a lot of deities that have Love as a domain also have Beauty as a domain, those are separate concepts. The description of the domain directly proceeding this list of spells even discusses that the domain is about nurturing emotional bonds, although it also mentions “confounding foes.”

In other words, any spell under the “Love” domain that is forcing someone to act against their will is effectively saying that “Love” is an offensive weapon, and I’m not sure I like that as a theme of the domain. I don’t think that is what the designers are trying to say. Rather, I think this is a matter of trying to balance “active” options with “passive” options when it comes to a support-oriented domain. (This domain has been renamed the Unity domain, and some of the example deities were reworked. The charm/hold spells on the list have been swapped out for spells like shield of faith, and aid, and honestly, for how they described the Love domain in the previous version, the name change probably wasn't needed, except maybe due to the ratio of negative commentary.)
  • Emboldening Bond is a 1st level feature that lets you bond two allies together, and gives them a bonus die to roll whenever they are within 30 feet of one another. You get it once per rest, but you can burn spell slots to do it more often. So far, so good.
  • Channel Divinity: Impulsive Infatuation is your alternate Channel Divinity option for this domain. You make someone love you so hard they are willing to kill for you if they fail a wisdom save. In that case, they use their reaction to make an attack on a target you direct. You can use this on allies, to give them an attack option with their reaction.
  • I don’t like weaponizing love. I get that D&D is a game where combat happens a lot, and I get that bolstering allies through “love” might make it easier to attack foes threatening you, but directly getting an enemy to “love” you for the purposes of attacking others you point them towards feels like you are equating love with manipulation. Not a fan. (For anyone wondering, this was the degree to which I was criticing to domain feature--I wasn't thrilled wish it, wished it said something different thematically. At any rate, this whole feature is gone, so I'm going to present the replacement in its own phantom bullet point.)
  • Even if you only use this feature on allies, they end up charmed by you until their next turn, and they use their reaction to admire you. That doesn’t feel like a great way to build genuine love and emotional bonds between party members.
  • I could see if this effect either allowed you to just cause an enemy to care about you enough that they just couldn’t attack. I could also see if you could use your action to allow one of your allies to make a reaction to attack to defend another ally being attacked. But redirecting artificial love into a directed attack feels wrong here to me.
  • Channel Divinity: Shared Burden lets you use your reaction to spend a use of your channel divinity power to distribute the damage a creature is taking across a number of willing recipients equal to your wisdom bonus--this is a pretty nice ability for building party bonds, and this would be a fun ability to use at the table. 
  • Protective Bond is the 6th level domain feature, which allows the people with Emboldening Bond to spend a reaction to grant that ally resistance until the end of the current turn. I like this, except it might be really easy for the bonded pair to forget they have this ability, especially if they aren’t caster types used this kind of resource tracking. Also, I have a little bit more on the overall domain that touches on this at the end.
  • At 8th level, the Love Domain gains Potent Spellcasting, which adds ability damage to cantrips. Not especially “Love” related, but in 5e, 8th level is usually either Potent Spellcasting or Divine Strike, so I guess it works here. (This ability is unchanged, but its worth noting that there is a sidebar that mentions all domains either get Divine Strike or Potent Spellcasting at this level. I wonder if people were harping on this as being another damaging option that proved that WOTC doesn't know what love is? I was just point out in the original version that, yeah, I get it, this level does one or the other, because that's an established pattern.)
  • Enduring Unity is the 17th level ability, and it also touches on the Emboldening Bond feature. This extends the distance of that link, and grants them advantage, damage resistance, and the ability to touch their bonded partner to let them spend hit dice if they drop to 0 hit points. People can point out where I might have missed a trick of wording, but since you can expend a spell slot to use this ability, at this level you could have a network of bonded party members that get this benefit, if you are willing to cull some of your lower-level spells.

Roleplaying Nitpicks: In addition to not being a fan of the “Love as Manipulation” that some of the spells and the Channel Divinity add in to this domain, I would love for Emboldening Bond to require the bonded PCs to speak something about one another that they care about, and for them to cite that bond when triggering their reaction for Protective Bond. It’s a minor thing, and it may be a thing that a lot of tables handwave, but I think it helps define what is actually happening with the bonds that the Love domain cleric is fostering.

Sorcerer

The sorcerer subclass that we get for this Unearthed Arcana is the Clockwork Soul, a sorcerer whose bloodline has a tie to the plane of Mechanus and the order of Primus and the Modrons. This subclass features the return of something I enjoyed from many of the recent UA subclasses, the table of manifestations, which are, in this case, all tied to clocks, gears, or geometry.
  • Restore Balance is the 1st level feature, and it’s worked in a way that I think is technically correct, but more confusing for that correctness. If someone is making a roll with advantage or disadvantage, you can grant them advantage AND disadvantage. Because having advantage and disadvantage cancel one another out in the rules, once both are applied to the same roll, everything is a wash and nothing is applied. I assume that the intent of this ability is to make sure that not only do you remove the advantage or disadvantage, but nothing else can apply advantage or disadvantage to that roll, and while I get that is how the rule works, I almost think it would be easier just to say that you cancel out advantage and disadvantage, and neither can be applied to the roll going forward. Maybe it's just me. (The new version of this ability does, indeed, say that you cancel advantage or disadvantage with your reaction, preventing the roll from being affected by either.)
  • Bulwark of Law is the 6th level feature. You can spend up to five sorcery points, and create one ward for each point spent, represented with a d6. This can be for you, or another creature. When you take damage, you can use that d6 to reduce it. I like warding abilities, and I like mechanics that use dice to physically represent something that is “in effect” around a character. The effect doesn’t mention it, but I would totally picture the caster having glowing gears hovering around them that move in between themselves and danger when the ward is expended. (This ability was boosted from d6s to d8s--I can say that it felt weak before, but I can't say that this won't work either, without seeing it in play, but I still really like this thematically.)
  • Trance of Order is an ability for 14th level, which allows you to spend 5 sorcery points to enter a trance that makes you immune to anyone attacking you with advantage, and lets you default to 10 on your rolls. This one is kind of hard to judge compared to other sorcerer abilities. Most of the official sorcerer abilities offer a limited use “free” extra movement mode at this level, and Aberrant Mind costs 1 sorcery point to activate its 14th level transformation feature. Automatic 10s are nice (and if you roll higher, you can still use the higher number), but that’s a lot of sorcery points, especially if you also like your wards being in place. (This one has been modified to give you the first use for free, per long rest, with the option of using it again for 5 sorcery points.)
  • Clockwork Cavalcade is the 18th level feature, which you get per long rest, or if you spend 5 sorcery points (spending them for the 18th level feature is WAY more common, and you get the first one free here). You make a 30-foot cube of friendly (benignly pre-programmed?) machine spirits that stabilize everyone in the cube, repair all damaged objects in the cube, and remove 5th level or lower spells on everyone in the cube. This is a useful multi-functional ability, but I’m not sure the specific circumstances when you are going to have your incapacitated allies, and your allies afflicted by 5th level spells all in the right place to drop this spell will work out. (This ability now also lets you use it once per long rest, with the option of spending 7 sorcery points to call on it early, bumps up the 5th level spell removal to 6th level, and adds in 100 hit points of healing done by your summoned Constructicons.)

Conclusion
I’ve only had minor quibbles with a lot of the recent subclasses, but these don’t feel as solid to me. The themes are all great, but there seems to be an ability in each of them that either isn’t workable for adventuring or deviates a bit too much from what the theme seems to be. I think the Clockwork Soul holds up the best of all of them, especially since the main quibble I have is that its abilities are expensive compared to similar sorcerer abilities at that level.

I’m hoping this round gets a little bit more tinkering than the last few rounds of subclasses.

(It's really fascinating to see similar building blocks rearrange a bit and bring home a different feel. I like the College of Creation much more by swapping out a combat useful ability into the 6th level slot, so the college feels less like a thematic choice that will get left behind by the more obviously martial bards, and I really like the mental image of the bard summoning a vehicle or big-ticket item to use for a few hours when you really need it short term.

I get why they wanted to scale back on even using the name Love after the backlash online, but had they left the Unity domain the Love domain, and made the changes they did, I would have loved it, especially since the domain, as originally described, was about fostering the love of companions as well as other forms of love. Slotting the ability to distribute damage into the Channel Divinity spot was a great rework of the original concept.

I already liked the Clockwork Soul, and my only concern was the sorcery point economy of the subclass, which the reworks of the main abilities address, and in addition, I like that Clockwork Cavalcade made it's very useful 18th level feature more expensive to trigger again, after allowing the once per long rest option. That seems more than fair.

I really like to cover these Unearthed Arcana articles, but if there is going to be the backlash that this one received going forward, I may have to bow out. I can't handle the stress, and it makes me wonder how willing WOTC is going to be with future public playtests if they have so many people lined up to assume the worst.)

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