D&D 5e Playtest: Waterborne Adventures

Okay, I’m a month late to the game on this one, but I’ve only now found time to write about the most recent release from Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures. It’s a rules module for things that like water, but prefer to stay above it rather than in it. In particular, it offers one race, one fighting style, one Rogue Archetype, and one Sorcerous Origin.

Minotaurs (Krynn)

I, for one, was surprised to see support for Krynn in a document not otherwise dedicated to the setting, but… sure! I like PC-playable minotaur(en) as much as anyone, and there’s even a sidebar suggesting what to change if you like minotaurs but not Dragonlance’s sea-faring, imperialist version.

Damn, the racial write-up here describes some serious assholes. Unless the whole party is made up of minotaurs, you must play an outlier or rebel to avoid being a complete jerk to the other PCs. Domineering, might-makes-right behavior does not make for a fun tabletop experience, unless everything in the game is dedicated to slapping that character down. If everyone’s playing a rebel, why didn’t you just write the whole thing from the rebel perspective in the first place?

Well, okay, there are some redeeming virtues. They’re proud warrior race guys, and because I like my readers I am not linking to TV Tropes. So maybe they’ll be tolerable for other party members, but suuuuper douchebags to every NPC you meet? I would like to cordially invite all of my players, in perpetuity, to steer clear of this. Having said that, the campaign set in the minotaur homelands would be cool – much like the sequences in ST: TNG and DS9 that immerse the viewer in Klingon culture are incredibly compelling.

On the mechanical side, they are suited to any and every kind of Strength-based class. If you’re not going to have at least a decent Strength, don’t be a minotaur, because three of your racial abilities are Strength-based:

  • Horns! Awesome, you’re definitely not a minotaur without horns. They’re not a finesse weapon, though.
    • Good lord, guys. d10 damage die?
    • So it’s a d10 damage die weapon that takes up zero hands to use. Huh. I’m betting there are some creative abuses waiting to happen there. How about “Blade Pact warlock, now with a shield and a free hand for somatic components”?
    • They also grant advantage on checks made to Shove a creature, but not to resist a Shove. They really did make a racial ability that is better than any nonmagical weapon in the game – not quite better than every weapon on damage output, but the Shove thing is a Big Deal. Remember, once you’ve Shoved someone successfully, the rest of your attacks against them gain advantage.
  • Goring Rush. Okay, they have a Charge mechanic. Another thematic necessity, given that there’s no universal Charge mechanic. It’s still Strength-directed, since the bonus attack at the end must use horns.
    • “When you Dash you may make a melee attack at the end, as a bonus action” is a pretty good Charge mechanic for broader application, though.
  • Hammering Horns. The saving grace of this ability is that it doesn’t allow a knockdown, only a push. In essence, it’s a limited version of the first benefit from Shield Master. Still, the offensive side of Shove is always a Strength (Athletics) check.
    • Okay, so you have to have declared an Attack action, and I assume you can’t intersperse your bonus action into your Attack sequence.
    • If you’re a defender type (and many Strength-friendly classes are), make sure you save enough movement in the turn to follow your opponent once you’ve shoved them. It wouldn’t do to discover that you’ve pushed an opponent to where they can maneuver around you without having to Disengage.

And three racial abilities that are not:

  • Conqueror’s Virtue. I like that they’re playing around with alternate models for racial ability score adjustment.
  • Labyrinthine Recall. Interesting feature for a nautical race, and an unbelievable military advantage – they don’t need navigational maps, just someone who has been there before. So they can set up all kinds of hazards in their ports, trusting their helmsman to remember the safe path perfectly.
    • Also, total immunity to some aspects of the Exploration area of the game! Depending on the campaign, this ability either doesn’t matter, or is so crazy broken that I can’t even.
  • Sea Reaver. This is the ability that the sidebar recommends changing for setting flavor. It’s interesting that the sidebar acknowledges thieves’ tools as the one tool that is as good as any normal skill, while all other tools are worth approximately half that.

Overall, my takeaway is that they’re incredibly combat-focused, in a way that favors some classes and all but locks them out of others – it’s generally thematically appropriate, but I don’t think other races feel like they’re giving up on so many of their racial abilities to choose any given class.

There’s more, though: Mearls experiments with a race-specific Bond table, “in addition to or in place of.” I am 100% in favor of this, and I should write Bond tables like this one for every race or subrace in my setting. It does such a good job of telling players who the minotaurs are and showing them some game-friendly and/or conflict-prone character concepts. This is, hands down, the best thing in the whole document.


Fighting Style: Mariner

Okay, so we’re looking at +1 AC under certain armor restrictions (that sound you hear is a warning klaxon, be alarmed), plus some other stuff that would normally require a Strength (Athletics) check and increased movement cost. The sidebar suggests that they know about this and see it as being fine, but I’m… less sure of that.

The reason there’s a klaxon above is that whenever you get into handing out bonuses for a once-in-a-career decision (armor type and general weapon/shield combination is like that for most characters), you may be admitting that a build is turning out to be underpowered. In this case, there’s room for Strength-based warriors (here a catchall term for characters that get a Fighting Style ability), but this caters to Dex-based warriors. It pays them for wearing light or medium armor, which they had to do anyway (lacking the Strength to ignore movement penalties in heavy armor) and preferred to do anyway (because light armor + maxed-out Dex is almost as good as heavy armor). It further lets them off the hook for making two of the main movement-based Strength (Athletics) checks, by simply giving them a Climb and Swim speed. Congratulations, Dex warriors, you can now afford to dump even more Strength.

The overlap with the Defense style should really be a warning sign in itself. If you’re the kind of person this is for, you get something explicitly better than the Player’s Handbook offered. Unless “the kind of person this is for” is an under-served category, it’s simple power creep, and you shouldn’t do that. Now, maybe WotC does feel that Dex warriors are an under-served category; if you start digging into the damage output of the Great Weapon Master, there might even be some basis there. I still don’t think this is a great way to do it.

Separately, it makes me wish that all weapon-wielding classes had access to one or more Fighting Styles, because why should fighters, paladins, and rangers have all the fun? I wonder if this concept wouldn’t therefore be better packaged as a feat.


Roguish Archetype: Swashbuckler

Like most Roguish Archetypes – and Lord knows I’ve written my share of them – the Swashbuckler offers five abilities, including two at 3rd level:

  • Fancy Footwork alters the Thief’s flow of action-economy by giving them a free, but single-target, Disengage. As a sidebar points out, the idea is to support the two-weapon-fighting rogue; it also opens up some movement and stealth options, since Dash and Hide are also on the table. The damage from a swashbuckler’s off-hand weapon is either crucial (if the primary attack missed) or nearly irrelevant (if it hit), since nothing here grants Sneak Attack more than once per turn. This ability is basically fine and matches up well with the Thief’s Fast Hands.
  • Toujours l’Audace is actually two abilities. Gaining your Charisma bonus to Initiative checks is nice, but probably not incredibly relevant… until you get to the second ability. (Interesting that Assassins, who depend so heavily on winning initiative, don’t get anything comparable.) They also get to deal their Sneak Attack damage to enemies who have none of your allies adjacent to them.
    • When I first read it, it wasn’t clear that the requirement of not having disadvantage was not lifted; that was clarified in Twitter later in the day.
    • With that clarified, the ability is still too good, and it is exceedingly rare that a swashbuckler has to do anything to be able to deliver Sneak Attack damage. I would propose:
      • When your enemy is adjacent to no characters other than you, you can deal your Sneak Attack damage. This establishes that either you need to isolate the enemy, or you need to swarm the enemy (since your normal SA conditions still apply). But marching up to an alert shield-wall alone is still suicide rather than audacity.
  • Panache may eventually come to be known as Rogue’s Death Wish. In combat, it’s a taunt effect, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but stepping up to d8 HD in 5e has made rogues only marginally less squishy. (The rogue in my campaign really does have a death wish. He put an 8 in Con, y’all.) Still, you’re allowed to kite like crazy, as long as you don’t move more than 60 feet away. The more often you can compel your opponent to run through your fighter-shaped abattoir, the better. On the DM’s end, that might prove to be incredibly frustrating, depending on the creatures, terrain, and situation. I might encourage the designers to add another clause or two for situations that automatically end the taunt.
    • Out of combat, it’s a charm. One charm effect per action with Wisdom (Insight) rather than a Wisdom saving throw? Uh. Once you land one charm on a creature, advantage from thenceforth might render a lot of social scenes awfully easy.
  • Elegant Maneuver is another option competing for the swashbuckler’s bonus action. It’s basically the brief camera shot of the swashbuckling hero planning his route to the chandelier cord, up to the balcony, et cetera. No objections to this.
  • Master Duelist is an accuracy safety net (because it only triggers when you fail) that works once per short rest and grants advantage on the reroll. It’s really good, but for a 17th level power, I don’t think it’s the least bit unreasonable. It’s less impressive than Thief’s Reflexes or Death Strike, and that’s a shame for a subclass themed on being flashy.

On the whole, the Swashbuckler is a solid Roguish Archetype for rogues who want to trade the Thief’s miscellaneous sleeve-borne tricks or the Assassin’s hard-to-set-up murderfacing for some additional raw combat power and a nasty bit of battlefield control. I think Toujours l’Audace and Panache may need a small amount of refinement, and I’m a little skeptical about trading in so many non-combat abilities for combat abilities – DMs need to remember to make that tradeoff matter. Still, it’s mostly good.


Sorcerous Origin: Storm

This is more or less a ship’s mage concept. I’m definitely glad they chose the sorcerer here, as it was woefully lacking in options in the Player’s Handbook. I heard you like lightning, because this Origin put lightning on your thunder so you can storm while you storm.

  • Wow, ten extra Spells Known right off the bat? That doubles their Spells Known at 9th level, tapering off to just 66% more by 17th level. A mere fifteen spells is restrictive for the normal run of sorcerers, but giving one Origin this much of an edge is a bit much.
    • To be fair, the sorcerer receives a restricted form of two of those ten extra spells, and some of those spells age rather gracelessly as the sorcerer enters high-level play.
  • Tempestuous Magic is a really nice panic-button rider on any non-cantrip that you cast, turning your bonus action into both a Disengage and a 10-foot flight. If you were previously pinned down, you’re now moving ten feet plus your whole move for the turn. I like giving the sorcerer a minor bennie for spending spell slots – it reminds me, indirectly, of what I liked so much in the super-early-playtest sorcerer class (…whose passing we yet mourn, because if they could have fixed the data management issues, that class promised to be amazingly stylish).
  • Heart of the Storm changes the sorcerer’s gameplay immensely, as they gain the option of splashing an unavoidable PBAoE every time they cast a non-cantrip spell. This ability is a reason to go put yourself in danger (because the damage doesn’t ignore allies), and Tempestuous Magic is your way out… or Quicken Spell, to take a big gamble and fry everything. This has great style, both thematically and mechanically.
    • Adding area damage to your spells-that-cost-something is an interesting answer to the Draconic Sorcerer’s ability at the same level that adds damage to a limited number of spells, but affects cantrips and expended spells alike.
    • I’m surprised this doesn’t cost sorcery points. It costs the Draconic Sorcerer a sorcery point to turn on resistance to one energy type for one hour.
  • Storm Guide carries the “ship’s mage” theme pretty firmly. As someone who designs a fair number of subclasses, I appreciate the sidebar explaining the design thought behind this ability. If you can get situational combat effectiveness out of Storm Guide, more power to you.
    • Once there are ship-to-ship combat rules, Storm Guide becomes insanely unfair. It would be like having a Horserer in a joust!
  • Storm’s Fury is the retributive lightning damage that the sorcerer had better not get in the habit of using, because they are still a d6 HD class. It also interrupts creatures with multiple attacks, pushing them 20 feet away; if they had to spend a lot of movement to reach you, they may be out of luck.
    • Between the 20 feet from this and the 10 feet from Tempestuous Magic… that’s exactly the speed of a normal creature. Somehow I’m guessing that’s not an accident, to prevent easy-mode kiting.
  • Wind Soul is where this Origin finally loses its ever-loving mind. I know you want to make the Storm sorcerer immune to the storm, but… gah! A duel of storm sorcerers shouldn’t mostly be hurling fire at one another. If it weren’t for the immunity, this would be fine, because other than that it grants personal or group flight.
    • It grants faster personal flight than the Draconic Sorcerer, and doesn’t concern itself with the mostly-flavor-text issue of getting armor purpose-built to allow wings to emerge.

On the whole, I think the Storm Sorcerer has quite a leg up on the Draconic Sorcerer. Wind Soul compares very favorably to Dragon Wings, albeit four levels later; Storm’s Fury compares… probably favorably to Draconic Presence (no sorcery point cost seals the deal); Heart of the Storm definitely kicks out more raw damage than Elemental Affinity and gets two energy resistances all day, rather than one for an hour per sorcery point; Draconic Resilience is an open question against the dynamic duo of Stormborn and Tempestuous Magic. Thematically, though, the storm sorcerer is as pure of a blaster concept as you could hope to find. I don’t play a lot of blasters (I don’t play a lot of PCs, while we’re on the subject), but I’d give this one a shot.



I love Unearthed Arcana, and I take immense pleasure in getting to read and pick apart (not cruelly, I hope, just analytically) the still-in-playtesting content. Balancing new content after the release of the main rulebooks has been a problem area for every game that has ever done it. One of three things seems to occur: the designers are now more confident in the design space and get more ambitious with the word “fair,” or the time and money for playtesting dries up, or the work of writing the splatbook gets farmed out to someone who doesn’t know the system as well as the original developers. In this case, the latter is obviously untrue, and Unearthed Arcana is evidence that they’re trying to avoid the second.

Now that I’ve put forward my arguments on Waterborne Adventures, WotC has a survey, so you can let them know whether or not I was persuasive. (Or whatever you care to tell them.)

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