Unearthed Arcana Archetypes Part 1: Barbarians, Bards, Clerics, and Druids.

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From the moment you opened the D&D5 Player’s Handbook, you just knew that you were going to see a lot more archetype options coming out. It’s what 2nd ed called “kits” and 3rd called “prestige classes” and they serve two primary purposes; the first is to offer more options and specialisations for you, the player, and the second is to allow the publisher an avenue to rip more money out of your wallet (and that’s ’90’s rpg design 101, folks!)

As a core-book purist, I like to have everything in the one book, and the Player’s Handbook for 5 has a staggering amount of options available, from a wide selection of Races, to the beautiful array of Backgrounds, and on to the Feats, Spells and Skills that can further give your character distinction. There’s quite simply no necessity to add much more to the choices in the core book.

But players can’t help but want to be special, and some jerk at your table will want to play some bloody weird race from a setting book that has just been released, and someone else will want a Feat from an optional set of rules that’s being playtested by the game designers, whilst someone else will be wanting to use some weapon that is usually only available to monsters. And all of this means that you’ll end up having to lug not only the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual to your game, but twelve other expansions, several sourcebooks for a setting that you aren’t even using, and countless printouts of options only available in pdf format.

So if that’s the kind of joyous experience you crave in a D&D game, you’ll be over the frikkin’ moon to know that D&D’s Unearthed Arcana has been releasing archetype options for the various classes on their website and all of them are absolutely free (I know, right!). Each week (!) has seen a new bunch of options for what is already an option-heavy game, and we are now just over a third of the way through them. Fortunately, the designers have made it clear that these options aren’t officially sanctioned and are for playtesting only, but that isn’t gonna stop you from receiving a dozen different requests for them every time a new one is released.

Enough of this cynical griping. Are these new Unearthed Arcana Archetpyes any good? And which are we likely to see in the inevitable 5.5? Better yet, let’s play Shag Marry Kill with ’em!

barb2Barbarian Primal Paths: Ah, Barbarians! One of my favourite character types in any game, and I’m far from alone there. The PHB gave us only two Paths for Barbie, one being the classic Berserker and the other being the more shamanic Totem Warrior. I like the Totem Warrior a lot, and Sword Coast Adventures added the Elk and Tiger totems to the base selection of Bear, Eagle, and Wolf, and I really liked that, too. That’s exactly the type of expansion I like to see and I hope they’ll be included in a future revision of the core book.

Unearthed Arcana gives us three new Paths, and two of them simply feel like different takes on the Totem Warrior. The first is the Ancestral Guardian which exchanges ghostly spirits for animal totems, allowing you to have a bunch of spooky apparitions helping you when you Rage. The second is the Storm Herald who gets their violent powers not from animals or dead folks but from the most inhospitable of terrain (Desert, Sea, or Tundra) creating all kinds of environmental effects when you flip your lid.

Neither of these Paths are awful, but they certainly seem like little more than riffs on the Totem Warrior and not unique Paths of their own. Neither of them is as fresh or exciting as the third Path offered; the Path of the Zealot.

Now this is what we’re looking for! A new and different take on a wild, reckless and unhinged warrior, and it makes perfect sense. Where most barbarians are nomadic savages, a Zealot is more urbane and driven by the sort of blind faith that puts a Paladin to shame. Though the rules for them state that their benefits are divine in nature, they could just as easily be fueled by pure conviction (however unsound that conviction may be). Of all three options, the Zealot is the best and most interesting.

  • Shag the Storm Herald. That symbolism of the internal violence physically personified makes for a fun story. And rockin’ a fiery whirlwind is a visceral delight.
  • Marry the Zealot. This is a unique take on the Barbarian Class and there’s nothing else like it in the game. It deserves to be included in the base game.
  • Kill the Ancestral Guardian. This would make a better Paladin option, or even some kind of haunted Sorceror. Rage doesn’t suit the concept.

bard-2Bard Colleges: Like a few other classes, Bards had only two archetypes available to them in the PHB; the College of Lore (which lets you be more smarterer, skillier and spellier) and the College of Valor (which lets you go smash stuff). I’ll confess that I would have liked another option (three Archetype options is a nice number), and Unearthed Arcana gives us another two.

And what a nice two choices they are, indeed. First up is the College of Glamour (yes, proper spelling, chaps!) turning our Bard into an enchanting figure who can bedazzle and enthrall spectators with the majesty of their presence. As opposed to the Homeric College of Lore or the skald-like College of Valor, this is a rock star of a Bard, imbued with the fae power of their muse, reminiscent of Orpheus or the Sirens. It’s a suitable and obvious choice for a Bard College, and it looks like a load of fun.

A little less obvious is the College of Whispers, which is fitting as it’s all about mystery, deception and intrigue. The College of Whispers is a spy concept, perfect for a sly manipulator who deals in secrets and sabotage. Where the Glamour Bard shines by standing in the spotlight, the Whispers Bard thrives in the shadows, pulling on the various strings they have woven through the audience.

Both of these concepts are great and both are incredibly different from the options in the PH. If the rest of the Unearthed Arcana options are as good as these Bard ones, then I might just have to eat my words and encourage their use.

  • Shag the College of Whispers. But only just. This Shag is worth the long haul.
  • Marry the College of Glamour. Though the Colleges of Lore and Valor offer great Bard directions, neither of them focus on the artist for art’s sake. A Glamour Bard is a character type missing in the PHB and perfect for a Disney princess (don’t be knockin’ playing a Disney princess, yo!)
  • Kill nobody. Good lesson for life, that. But I’ll take the chance to say that both Colleges would be welcome in my ideal 5.5.

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Cleric Divine Domains: It seems that with all the Paladins, Druids, Elemental Monks, Totem Warriors and whatnot that deal with greater powers, Clerics are kind of becoming redundant. It’s hard to know what their place is any more (other than the classic healing station and second rank warrior useful against minor undead.) Nevertheless, the tight list of Domains in D&D5 was missing only a Bad Guy Death choice, and that was included in the DMG, and I thought it didn’t need much expanding.

Unearthed Arcana now gives us the Forge, Grave, and Protection Domains, and I don’t really know what to think of them. Forge is great for gods of creation, construction and order, and it is probably the best of the lot. It fills a niche not found elsewhere in the other Domains, and I think it certainly has a place in most settings.

Grave is less unique and seems to fill the role of Good Guy Death choice. Certainly I love the idea of a god of clean deaths, sanctified burials and making sure the dead stay bloody dead, but it seems to be just a variant on a Domain instead of one in its own right. And despite all of this, it’s very likeable and I can’t help but want to see a Grave Cleric in one of my games.

Protection is… well, in some ways it turns you into the classic Cleric. It’s almost like a Paladin, but where Pally strides forth into the night, Protecto the Cleric holds the shadows at bay. I mentioned to a friend that Life is the go-to Cleric option for the typical Cleric experience, but Protection could be equally viable. In a lot of ways, Protection is probably ALSO the best of the three options presented…

… which is a shame, because I like the other two a lot more. So I guess I like all three, and that annoys me because I don’t want to like ANY of these bloody options. I’ve got enough Domains in my Player’s Handbook already, thank you very much. But could there be less? Or could some maybe be replaced…

  • Shag the Grave Domain. This is a great concept which I’ve seen a few times and playing such a Cleric is natural and entertaining. Worth trying.
  • Marry the Forge Domain. When you put it up with the rest of the PHB Domains it deserves a place. Nevertheless, maybe Creation would make for a better Domain instead.
  • Kill the Protection Domain. If you were to reduce the list of Domains to three I’d argue for it to be included next to Life and Light. But it loses its shine next to the more colourful Domains.

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Druid Circles: Remember what we were saying about Clerics becoming redundant? Exhibit A is the Druid (why would you bother playing a Nature Cleric when Druids are on the table?) The core book gave us the Circle of the Land which seemed to cover pretty much everything you could ask for with a druid (even offering eight different land types for your extra customisation) and then threw in the Circle of the Moon which kind of brought Garou theurges into the game (that’s an old Werewolf reference, kids.)

Good news on the Shag Marry Kill front, we get three new Druid Circles with the Unearthed Arcana release, and the first is a treat for any of you who’ve ever wanted a character who leaves rose petals trailing with every jingling step and farts that smell like rainbows. The Circle of Dreams is a more fae take on Druids with a Galadrial-like quality. It’s like playing a dryad and is a natural fit for elves and gnomes.

The Circle of the Shepherd has a great name but it seems a massive intrusion on other Classes. There are heavy similarities to the Totem Warrior, Beast Master and even the Circle of the Moon and I just don’t see it as being distinct enough to be relevant. The Circle of Twilight is basically Exhibit B in the attempt to make Clerics redundant, this time by stealing the Grave Domain that was only released the week before. Get your own ideas, Druids!

But we also get something new with the Druid Circles release, and that’s some optional rules regarding the beasts you can change into, and these are actually quite fair and welcome. The Druid’s Wild Shape ability can be quite powerful and these restrictions don’t seem draconian at all. It also gives an insight into where they might be heading with the other spellcasting Classes…

  • Shag the Circle of Twilight. You know that guy who’s always playing exiled drow nobles with two scimitars and a poisoned hand crossbow doomed to kill everyone he loves? He’s gonna love the Circle of Twilight.
  • Marry the Circle of Dreams. It’s a classic form of fairytale character and an honourable one, though it might be wise to ask yourself honestly how long you could really play Tom Bombadil.
  • Kill the Circle of the Shepherd. You know the little bits that make stuff like the Totem Warrior and Beast Master “a bit like a Druid?” The Circle of the Shepherd grabbed those bits and gave itself a name. Bad Circle of the Shepherd!

Unearthed Arcana can be found on the D&D website dnd.wizards.com and a different Class is being spotlit each week. In Part 2 we’ll look at what’s on offer for Fighters, Monks, Paladins, and Rangers.

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