This month’s Unearthed Arcana offers playtest support for the new and widely popular (from all that I’ve heard) Curse of Strahd adventure. It is relatively brief – three pages, covering one new subrace that is available to many races, one fighter archetype and one rogue archetype. Let’s go through it and see what we’ve got.
The theme behind a revenant PC is as excellent now as it was in 4e: something went wrong! You died horribly! Now you’re back for vengeance! I mean, in most stories the revenant is the implacable antagonist, but this is D&D. Playing roles typically reserved for antagonists is an ancient tradition of our people.
The revenant’s rules suggest the possibility of a long-term character becoming a revenant in the course of play as well, and I think that’s pretty cool. For most of the races, it’s as simple as dropping your subrace and filling in the revenant subrace features. I expect they really wish they had made every race with a clear subrace now, because they have to get into some awkward rules to make revenants work for humans and dragonborn. Tieflings got rewritten in a previous Unearthed Arcana. Half-elves, half-orcs, aarakocra, and goliaths get the shaft here. (As a side note, not to say a snide note, expectation of this problem governed my design of Aurikesh’s player races.)
The changes to the human are such that 75% of the players I’ve seen choose human would never accept the revenant human. Specifically, the revenant human loses its bonus feat at 1st level. I don’t think I go too far to say that the CharOp community had an aneurysm just looking at that. It isn’t that the revenant’s actual mechanics are bad; it’s that they don’t specifically help you execute your One Weird Trick sooner. Oh, and they lose their extra skill proficiency as well (but no one takes the Variant Human for that). Not too many people take the non-Variant human, either.
The changes to the dragonborn are a lighter touch, changing your breath weapon and resistance to necrotic (this is… mostly an upgrade!) and trading one point of Strength for one point of Constitution and the whole boat of revenant abilities. Dragonborn look like the A+ option for revenants. (Dracolichborn?)
The revenant offers:
- 1 point of Con. Sure, fine.
- Regain 1 hit point on your turn, up to half your maximum hit points.
- I don’t like this one, because I expect a lot of realizing after the fact that you missed a few rounds of regeneration, or wondering if you did. It feels like fiddly math, and 5e has mostly avoided that.
- Revenants don’t stay dead – they self-resurrect after 24 hours, even if disintegrated or tossed into a volcano or whatever.
- This is awesome, but it would bother me to see this become a tool of PC shenanigans. The revenant’s grim purpose getting used for ridiculous ends undermines the whole story of the revenant and that makes me sad. There are a lot of areas where even I just accept that players may take things in a goofy direction, but this one would bug me more than most.
- As long as the target of your vengeance is on the same plane, you know the distance and direction to it.
- They are just not revenants without an ability like this.
The revenant’s ultimate goal is to be dead again, having accomplished something left unfinished in life or righting some wrong. This is tricky in the span of a campaign, if that target is anything other than the main campaign goal. Narrative and game-friendly pacing issues abound if your vengeance is a side quest. (If your campaign doesn’t have a single through-line plot and main bad guy, it’s fine – that player should just count on rolling up a new character once the revenant’s storyline is done.)
Overall, the revenant is mostly fine. I’d like to see the regeneration feature work differently somehow, so that it presents less mental load. I hope that any final release of the race would figure something out for the currently-excluded races, and give some real thought to just how overpowered the non-revenant Variant Human and the revenant dragonborn really are. I don’t know that there’s a rules-level fix for my issues around self-resurrection, but some kind of drawback if they turn away from their purpose might help. (It would also make them terrible members of a team where everyone has personal goals.) I dunno, the theme around revenants suggests that they should be single-minded, implacable, and filled with hatred – not exactly the best team player. There’s bound to be problems when theme and gameplay are at odds.
Fighter Archetype: Monster Hunter
This archetype bothers me, but really only because of the context of the Kits of Old UA article. Specifically, it looks more and more like some Combat Superiority dice with a narrow list of applications has become their cookie cutter for additional fighter archetypes. My problem with this is that they’re all so much narrower than the Battle Master – even with their different maneuvers, they kinda feel like subsets.
The Monster Hunter does what it says on the tin, without being narrowed down to a single type of monster (the perennial ranger problem). They gain:
- Two skills from an investigation-themed list. They may choose any tool proficiency in place of a skill proficiency. Usually this is a downgrade of utility, but I’m always in favor of ways for more characters to be the party’s traps-and-locks person.
- Combat Superiority, with the same progression of dice pool and die sizes that the Battlemaster gets.
- Four maneuvers:
- Precision Attack
- An attack that is especially good at disrupting an enemy spellcaster’s Concentration. Works great for readied actions!
- A boost to Int, Wis, or Cha saves, to shake off mind-control monsters. This is a very good thing to include.
- They can apply their CS die to Perception or Insight checks. This amounts to gaining Expertise-or-better (because of the average values on the CS dice), applied only when your roll was otherwise underwhelming. This is a pretty cool ability; I like less-combative applications of CS dice overall, though this results in the Monster Hunter being a bit less impressive as a combatant than the Battle Master and other CS-using archetypes.
- Hunter’s Mysticism, which emphasizes the Monster Hunter as someone with one toe over the line into the supernatural world. Detect magic as a ritual, and protection from evil and good once per long rest. Learn Abyssal, Celestial, or Infernal.
- Since they also hunt fey, they should add Sylvan to this, and maybe Giant, though Giants are totally not gothic-horror foes. Anyway, this ability is fine and low-key.
- Monster Slayer at 7th level lets them dump their CS dice into damage even faster, and it gets straight-up crazy if you’re attacking an aberration, fey, fiend, or undead. Maximizing the result of two CS dice is a big deal.
- So… if you don’t declare your CS dice until you already know it’s a crit… I guess the CS dice are doubled and maximized? Jesus. Spending two CS dice for 32 damage (40 at 10th, 48 at 18th) is bananas.
- Improved Combat Superiority and Relentless work exactly like they always do.
On the whole, this archetype is not super exciting to me – I don’t think they took a lot of risks in the design – but it is pretty good at what it does. Let’s not lose sight of how balls-out overpowered Monster Slayer is, though. If it were up to me, I might have made this a retool of the Eldritch Knight rather than the Battle Master, expanding the theme that Hunter’s Mysticism touches on.
Rogue Archetype: the Inquisitive
The last section of the article offers the Inquisitive, which is less inquisitor and more detective. I wrote my own version of an Investigator rogue; this angles toward a similar theme with a much simpler and less detective noir approach. I feel like the core story of the Inquisitive “should” trend toward discovering unwelcome, even unbearable, truths that get the character a new lodging… under six feet of dirt.
This subclass gets a large number of features, by the standards of rogue archetypes.
- Ear for Deceit is sort of a scaling version of Reliable Talent for Wisdom (Insight).
- This necessarily has all of the problems of Reliable Talent, but more so – it exists to suck the tension out of a lot of rolls. If this feature or Reliable Talent turned out to be useful, then you learn after the fact that there was no risk in the die roll.
- Not a lot of rogues are going to have great Wisdom scores, but proficiency and Expertise can eventually give you a minimum result of 20 + Wisdom modifier.
- Eye for Detail opens three new options for the rogue’s Cunning Action: Perception, Investigation, or Insightful Fighting.
- What’s Insightful Fighting? I’m glad you asked!
- Insightful Fighting is super weird. It’s the linchpin of the whole subclass, and spends the rogue’s bonus action, with a failure chance, to go apeshit on a target. You’re rolling Wisdom (Insight) against Charisma (Deception), so both Eye for Detail and Ear for Deceit improve this feature. If successful, basically every conceivable attack you can make against that target gains your Sneak Attack boost.
- The game is balanced so that it’s always okay for a rogue to apply SA dice, but… this seems like the short-circuiting of any rogue playstyle. The 1-minute duration and the one-at-a-time limit suggests to me that the inquisitive needs to be more methodical than other rogues, but is much better in solo action.
- For some reason it really bugs me that even a blind inquisitive gets SA dice against an Insightful Fighting target. Though you do have to be able to see the target when you first use Insightful Fighting, because it only works against a target you can see.
- Steady Eye is a pretty corner-case ability, but grants advantage on Perception checks if you don’t move on your turn. I think this is one of the only features I’ve seen in the game that specifically requires or rewards not moving? Anyway, it’s good for spotting invisible or stealthy foes.
- Unerring Eye lets you spend an action to know if something is a bit fishy about your perceptions (any illusions, shapechanged creatures, or deceptive magic), but it isn’t truesight and doesn’t tell you the actual truth.
- Eye for Weakness cranks up the rogue’s Sneak Attack by another 2d6, if Insightful Fighting applies. I expect that at high levels, the rogue has developed enough ways to deal with the normal limitations of Sneak Attacking that this feature helps to keep Insightful Fighting relevant in the late game.
I get how this archetype makes the rogue great at the three detecting skills. I get how it connects their detecting skills to combat. It doesn’t touch on lore mastery at all, though the flavor text suggests that it would. More so than a lot of rogues, the Sage background really cries out to be combined with the Inquisitive. “I have super-senses” seems like a fairly narrow concept, and I really would have expected some feature to tap into the strangeness and darkness of a Gothic horror setting.
Without a unified system for investigation challenges in 5e, it’s hard to guess how often this archetype’s special tricks will be useful in non-combat situations. Their combat tricks will definitely be useful, but more damage that is almost-always-on doesn’t communicate a lot of flavor.
I’m curious to see how the community as a whole receives this packet. The revenant is well-realized, if overpowered in some cases, totally undesirable in others, and disallowed in several cases, while the two archetypes are oddly bland. There’s just not that much that connects them to Gothic horror and Ravenloft, that I can see. Yes, the player and DM do a lot of the work of making the theme fit into the setting – but 5e’s other classes and subclasses work a lot harder to point the player in the right direction and support genre conventions.