Design Diary: In the Company of Unicorns

When I was first asked to create rules for unicorns as PCs in D&D 5e, part of my reaction was realizing that I wasn’t the target demographic for this product. I’ve never been a brony. Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a classic and a masterpiece, but my reaction to it was not, “I want to play the unicorn as my PC.” I love Legend (flaws and all), but my reaction to it was again not “I want to play one of the unicorns as my PC.” Gaudior, in Swiftly Tilting Planet… okay, I’d play Gaudior as a PC. It took some time for me to find that interest in my own imagination. I suspect there are a lot of people whose first reaction to seeing ITC Unicorns on DTRPG isn’t, “At long last I can play that unicorn concept I’ve had for years!” What I want to say, then, is that I got excited about the idea.

My goal was to find the Venn diagram overlap of people who love unicorns just so much and people who want an unusual D&D experience. I don’t think you have to be a die-hard fan of unicorns to find a character you want to play in this product. Maybe this can be a product that draws your friend – or kid, probably but not necessarily a daughter – who is a serious unicorn fanatic into D&D fandom. No judgment! I want everyone to have that thing they like in a way that can be fun for the whole table.

BJ Hensley’s excellent work for the Pathfinder version didn’t translate directly into 5e. At base, Pathfinder design favors large collections of a la carte choices, so that every character of that class is a sort of roll-your-own list of features. From what we’ve seen so far, PF 2 will continue this trend, so I feel comfortable saying that it’s part of the PF design identity. 5e manifestly does not do that. The Totem Warrior barbarian, the Battle Master fighter, and the Four Elements monk have some a la carte choices, but those are subclasses, they’re rare in their structural choice, and they’re still quite limited in the number of internal choices you’re making. All of this is to say that the silvermane exemplar class design has almost nothing in common between 5e and PF, save for one problem that I solved in the same way she had.


Racial Traits

Obviously enough, if you’re playing a quadruped, there need to be some rules around what you can and can’t do. 5e doesn’t much go in for explicit drawbacks in racial traits, Sunlight Sensitivity notwithstanding. On the other hand, you just can’t support the fiction of being an equine-shaped creature without rules for what that can’t do in the situations that the presumed-humanoid rest of the party draws you into. In exchange for a lot of items (including magic items) that you’ll never be able to use, you’ve got substantial natural weapons that behave as magical weapons, and you’ve got a few baseline magical abilities that fit into various imaginings of an alicorn’s powers.

Where the PF original offers an extensive list of alternate racial traits, the 5e model uses subraces, and I decided on four major fictional unicorn types. I’d summarize them as the Good One, the Other Good One, the Evil One, and the Neutral One, or maybe Healing, Luck, Damage, and Trickery. Fiendish unicorns don’t have to be evil, any more than tieflings have to be evil, but it’s the common form. I’m also seeing a good number of fantasy authors, such as Catherynne Valente and Tanith Lee, subvert the sweetness-and-light conception of unicorns, embracing a darker or scarier take. I wanted to offer some support in that direction, even if I couldn’t fully incorporate their vision.

Even though nightmares aren’t traditionally corrupted unicorns per se, I felt no reluctance to draw on them for inspiration. I think that playing a fiendish silvermane exemplar and going with the Knave subclass is a great way to handle a nightmare as a PC, if that’s something you want to play; that could be a ton of fun with a warlock or Oathbreaker paladin as your bonded rider.


New Subclasses

The PF original has some alternate class features for each class, which is just how things are done in PF. Not so for 5e, but we do have the Battlerager barbarian and the Bladesinger wizard as examples of subclasses that are, in theory if not in practice, restricted to one race. The quadrupedal limitations mean that some classes that are thematically great fits for unicorns fall apart in actual use, or don’t fully realize the story potential. To that end, I created a new paladin oath, a new sorcerous origin, and a new warlock pact.

Taking the last one first, note that that’s a pact only – I don’t feel like there’s a clear warlock patron that they should most favor. The Pact of the Sundered Horn leans way into Legend, while also creating space for melee unicorn warlocks that is vacated by the poor fit of Pact of the Blade. There’s also handling for non-unicorns to choose this Pact, though it’s not primarily for them and it would take considerable work to get as much benefit out of this as other Pacts offer.

Pact of the Sundered Horn: Severing a re’em’s horn is the most horrific violation that most re’em can imagine, and it is recognized as such even among those who think the re’em little more than a myth. Yet for those who would make a pact with sinister powers, it is a potent bond and sure to reap great rewards from those dread entities. To adopt this pact, a warlock must sever the horn of a re’em. Re’em warlocks can achieve this by sacrificing their own horns to their patrons, or the horns of other re’em.
A re’em warlock who chooses this pact and sacrifices their own horn loses their Horn racial feature, and the alicorn feature of their subrace. In return, their teeth elongate and sharpen, dealing 1d6 piercing damage on a hit, or 2d6 if the target’s current hit points are less than its maximum hit points. This bite attack can replace the use of a horn in the re’em Charge racial feature.
All warlocks of this pact deal an additional 1d6 necrotic damage on attacks that hit creatures in total darkness, or creatures who are blinded.

The Elder Unicorn Bloodline origin draws primarily on Swiftly Tilting Planet and The Black Unicorn, as I go super cosmic with the unicorn story. I’d argue that more sorcerous bloodlines should dabble in cosmic themes, but then I was a great fan of 4e’s Cosmic sorcerer (awesome theme, never saw it played to judge the implementation). We’ve seen sorcerers that get to steal from the cleric list; here’s one that does the same with druid. At least to me, Keeper of the Eldest Law is probably the most interesting feature, as it proposes to invest the player with a kind of authority you don’t often see. Its name and theme reference Aslan’s quote in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.”

Keeper of Eldest Law: Beginning at 14th level, you learn the geas spell. This does not count against your total number of spells known.
You can call to mind the ancient laws that bind the cosmos, to forgive curses, oaths, and ill-made bargains. As an action, expend a spell slot of any level. If the spell slot is higher level than the spell slot expended to place the curse, geas, oath, or binding agreement, the effect ends. If it is of the same level, lower level, or the spell level is unclear, roll d20. On a roll of 10 or higher, the curse, geas, oath, or binding agreement ends for the target. The person or entity who placed the effect is aware of what you have done and learns your name. You can use this feature once and regain use of it when you finish a long rest.

The Oath of the Greenwood is another case of holding onto class theme while solving for class utility. Unicorns and the purity of paladins fit together precisely, to me, but weapons, armor, and Fighting Style all present problems. Once I had come that far, well, why not finish it out? Of the two new Channel Divinity options, Exaltation of Healing makes me particularly happy, because I like ways for characters who aren’t personally casting the spell to contribute something and make it more awesome. It combines just fine with paladin spellcasting, of course, but teamwork mechanics are so much fun.

Exaltation of Healing: Exaltation of Healing. As a bonus action, you imbue your horn with the power to magnify and spread healing magic. Until the beginning of your next turn, any creature of your choice within 30 feet that casts cure wounds, healing word, lesser restoration, greater restoration, or heal can choose a second target within 30 feet of you to receive the same effect as the original target.


Silvermane Exemplar

A key part of every In the Company of book is the 20-level racial class, to tell that race’s core story as strongly as possible. In most cases, you’re helping a different race “grow into” the conceptual parent race, but I feel like the unicorn stat block in the Monster Manual can easily represent an average or mature unicorn, so it’s less necessary to differentiate them from a PC playing a unicorn that hasn’t yet come into the fullness of its strength – but in time comes to surpass it. I should say, that’s another thing that is more acceptable in the conceits of 5e than PF.

The center of this class design is the Purity and Sorrow feature. Overwhelming emotions are a common element of unicorn presentation; here I can look to The Last Unicorn as a source text. I also see it as part of the soul-from-the-dawning-age concept. The dice scaling shows my hand on how this is a riff on Bardic Inspiration and Combat Superiority, but I’ve dumped the per-short-rest currency format and created a prerequisite action. I see this as a risky move, because 5e combats are short and to the point. Having to spend rounds not using your best powers because you haven’t done the qualifying thing yet is time you’re not fully shining. I really wanted to push a playstyle where using one side of your skillset made you even better with the other side.

Purity and Sorrow: Starting at 2nd level, you draw great strength from the spiritual states of sorrow and purification. When you hit a creature with an attack roll, the violence of your strike grants you Sorrow. When you restore hit points to a friendly creature, cause a friendly creature to gain temporary hit points, or end a condition on a friendly creature, you gain Purity from your easing of pain in the world. You cannot gain Purity if you already have Purity, and you cannot gain Sorrow if you already have Sorrow.
When you restore hit points to a creature or grant it temporary hit points and you have Sorrow, you can choose to lose Sorrow to add 1d6 to the hit points restored or granted. Other features grant additional ways to use Sorrow.
When you roll damage for an attack, you can choose to lose Purity to add 1d6 radiant damage to the damage dealt. Other features grant additional ways to use Purity.
If you do not end them early, Purity and Sorrow fade after 1 minute.
Your Purity and Sorrow die changes when you reach certain levels in this class. The die becomes a d8 at 5th level, a d10 at 10th level, and a d12 at 15th level.

You’ve also got a currency pool to manage, in the form of Inner Light. It didn’t feel quite right to me to handle the alicorn’s power (in a class that is very much about the alicorn) with spell slots. Something more like ki or sorcery points felt more appropriate, even where you do convert inner light into spellcasting. Also, because it’s a racial paragon class, I felt it appropriate that this feature magnifies the alicorn features of each subrace into potentially covering whole party roles.

Inner Light: As a silvermane exemplar, you strengthen the inner light that powers alicorns, allowing you to exceed the normal limits of your alicorn’s power. This power is represented by inner light points, which allow you to create a variety of magical effects. Regain all expended inner light when you finish a long rest.
As an action, spend 1 inner light point to touch a willing creature with your horn. That creature gains temporary hit points equal to your Charisma modifier.
If you have an alicorn feature that grants spells, you can cast those spells with inner light. A 1st-level spell costs 1 inner light point, and a 2nd-level spell costs 2 inner light points.
As an action, spend any amount of inner light to touch a willing creature with your horn. That creature regains hit points equal to 5 x the amount of inner light spent. This healing has no effect on constructs or undead.

Humanoid Form is another reference to The Last Unicorn, especially with its potential for permanent transformation. It’s not that I think any PC will actually undergo permanent transformation as a result of this feature, but I wanted it to be part of the character’s outlook and something that could be a story element during play.

Humanoid Form: Starting at 9th level, you can transform yourself into a humanoid of any race. You gain the speed and perception modes of the race you choose, but no other racial features. Your form in each race is unique to you, and you can’t replicate another creature’s appearance. You retain your own ability scores and personality. You gain proficiency in simple weapons. You lose your re’em racial features, but you can still use all silvermane exemplar features. The Multiattack feature instead becomes Extra Attack, allowing you to make two attacks instead of one when you use the Attack action.
Gear you wear at the time of transformation melts into your new form. Your humanoid form is created with traveler’s clothes typical to a culture of your choice. When you return to your re’em form, gear you wear or carry falls to the ground at your feet.
This transformation lasts for 1 hour. At the end of that duration, you can choose to take 1 level of exhaustion to extend the duration to one day. At the end of each further day, you can repeat that choice, extending the duration by another 24 hours. You can’t remove levels of exhaustion through rest while you remain in humanoid form. When you reach 6 levels of exhaustion, you do not die. Instead, the transformation becomes permanent, and can only be reversed with divine intervention, a greater restoration spell cast with a 9th-level spell slot, a wish, or a true polymorph.

Swift as Light is a combat-range teleport. I’m not gonna lie, this one is a reference to the 1986 My Little Pony: The Musical, starring the immortal Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, and Madeline Kahn. I haven’t seen it, but Kainenchen describing a unicorn using chain-teleportation to stay out of reach of a creature it was essentially tanking stuck with me.

Swift as Light: Beginning at 13th level, when you move or Dash on your turn, you can spend 1 inner light point to teleport a distance equal to your speed instead. This causes a flare of bright light and can’t be used in a stealthy manner.

Glorious Wings, at 17th level, is for Gaudior and every winged unicorn, pegacorn, or whatever your fandom of choice calls a unicorn with wings on. My editor, the mighty Dan Dillon, gave me some good-natured grief about seeing a World of Warcraft reference in flying mounts losing their wings when you get into combat (gain Sorrow). It’s an amusing parallel, but I had actually just thought it appropriate that Sorrow would bind a unicorn to earth.

Glorious Wings: Beginning at 17th level, you can spend 4 inner light points to sprout mighty, feathered wings from your back. You gain a flight speed of 40 feet. These wings last for 8 hours or until you gain Sorrow. You can carry up to two Small or Medium riders in flight, but you cannot fly while heavily encumbered. You can manifest these wings while wearing barding or a saddle.

(I’m not covering every feature, because there’s not even a micro-anecdote behind every feature.)


Noble Orders (Silvermane Exemplar Subclasses)

Every part of the Noble Orders is, of course, new in the 5e version, since PF doesn’t have a direct parallel. As with any subclass design, I was looking for four different directions to push their playstyle, without working against their core functions.

Royals pick up ranged effectiveness and improved support-role spellcasting. Sun-Crowned, at 18th level, is your big showstopper, blinding your targets and those who attack you.

Sun-Crowned: Starting at 18th level, you can conjure a crown as radiant as the sun itself as an action. The radiant crown lasts for 1 minute or until you dismiss it as a bonus action. While it remains:
• You shed bright light in a 120-foot radius.
• You gain resistance to cold, fire, radiant, and necrotic damage.
• Creatures you hit with your horn or a fire bolt roll a Charisma saving throw (DC 8 + your Charisma modifier + your proficiency bonus). On a failed save, they are blinded for 1 minute. At the end of each of their turns, they can make a new saving throw, ending the blinded condition on a success.
• As a reaction when you are hit with an attack by a creature within 10 feet of you, you can force them to roll a Charisma saving throw, becoming blinded until the beginning of their next turn on a failed save.

Courtiers are subtle and capable of treachery, representing the more fey side of unicorns in myth. Noble, pure, radiant… yes, silvermane exemplars can be those things. They can also use their overwhelming majesty to undermine their foes at every turn. Once you’re making unicorns into protagonists rather than MacGuffins or supporting cast, they’re people, not myth-made-flesh; they have motives, agency, and inventiveness.

Treacherous Attack: Starting at 11th level, when you end a sanctuary spell by making an attack, you deal an additional 3d6 damage if the attack hits. You also deal this damage on attacks you make while you are invisible, up to once per turn. If you have Purity, you can end it to add your Purity and Sorrow die to this damage.

Knights draw on some of what I was doing with the Oath of the Greenwood – two different ways to be a warrior unicorn probably should share some elements. This should be quite capable as a party’s defender, thanks to Stalwart Guardian. It also gets some warlord-like movement-granting options.

Stalwart Guardian: Starting at 3rd level, you can end Purity as a reaction to apply your Purity and Sorrow die as a penalty to an attack roll that an enemy makes against a creature other than you within 5 feet of you. Declare this before the attack roll. If the attack still hits,you can choose to halve the damage to the target creature; if you do, you also suffer damage equal to half the damage dealt.

Finally, the Knaves: the true team players of the unicorn world. Knave’s Horn is yet another The Last Unicorn reference. The rest of the subclass features are just about the fiction around the pure of heart riding unicorns into battle. Paladins can summon and dismiss their steeds? Well, Bond of the True Heart sort of shows that from the mount’s point of view.

Knave’s Horn: At 1st level when you choose this Noble Order, you can look like a normal (if high-quality) horse by causing anyone who does not know you by name to simply fail to see your horn, as a magical illusion effect. You can choose to reveal your horn at any time. You automatically reveal your horn if you attack with it, gain Purity or Sorrow, or spend inner light points. Once revealed, you can conceal your horn again after 1 minute. You gain advantage on Charisma (Deception) checks that involve your horn, and you can make such checks without speaking.

If this post is the first time you’ve heard of In the Company of Unicorns, I hope you’ll check it out. If you’ve been holding off on buying because you’re not sure you’re interested in playing a unicorn, I can only hope to change your mind a little. I want you to see that I’m offering the clear, engaging gameplay that you love in 5e, supported by strong thematic ties.

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