What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana 2020 Subclasses Part 4 (D&D 5e)

PHB Special CoverTime for another round of first impressions with the release of a new Unearthed Arcana today. Press play on your MP3 of Alice Cooper’s “I Love the Dead,” because that’s kind of the theme of today’s offerings, with two new subclasses that deal with spirits from beyond. In this case, the subclasses are for bards and warlocks.

The College of Spirits (Bard)

This subclass represents bards who speak with spirits to learn stories from them, and gain special abilities from these stories. The flavor of the class leans heavily on concepts from fortune-telling and seances.

  • 3rd—Guiding Whispers, Spiritual Focus, Tales from Beyond
  • 6th—Spiritual Focus, Spirit Session
  • 14th—Mystical Connection

At 3rd level, College of Spirits bards get access to guidance, they can use alternate spellcasting focuses like candles, crystal balls, a tarokka deck, or a “talking board,” and they get a special use of their Inspiration feature which costs a bonus action to “charge,” and an action to “discharge. In this case, they hear a story from a spirit, then impart the power from that story.

The mechanic for this is a table for the type of story the sprits have provided the bard. The table goes from 1 to 12, but it uses the bardic inspiration die, so the higher entries on the chart are only available at higher levels, but aren’t reliably available as higher-level abilities. The effects of these stories vary from advantage, extra damage, save movement, and temporary hit points at the low end, to similar effects at the high end, which might involve the base effect and a “kicker ability” (such as becoming invisible and getting extra damage the first time the invisible creature attacks), to having effects that do damage equal to multiple rolls of a bardic inspiration die.

At 6th level, the character gains an addition die on healing or damage done with spells when using their special spiritual foci, and they can also perform a special kind of séance that grants them an extra divination or necromancy spell. This is limited by proficiency bonus AND the number of participants, so this might be an instance where party size directly affects the efficacy of a class ability, once proficiency bonus outstrips PCs in the group.

At 14th level, instead of spending a bardic inspiration die to use the Tales from Beyond feature, it’s something you can do all of the time, whenever you want to spend the bonus action and an action to trigger the effect, but when used in this way, without using a bardic inspiration die, you only roll a d6 for effects.

First off, the easy observations. I really like the flavor of this class, and like most of the Unearthed Arcana we’ve seen the last year or so, the “story” of the subclass is pretty strong and consistent. Additionally, we’re seeing more use of the “proficiency bonus” as a limiter instead of ability bonus, which leads me to think that it wasn’t too unpopular in previous feedback to keep making an appearance.

Having a table that scales with the die used for bardic inspiration is one of the most innovative ways I have seen to “level up” a class ability, but I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it. I know as a replacement for a bardic inspiration, there has to be a payoff to the larger die type, but it also feels like it could be really disappointing to not get those bigger effects when you spend a bigger die. I like this concept, I’m just torn on how I feel about how often it might get used, and if it will get used enough to appreciate entries that are 6+.

I mentioned that party size might be a limiter to how effective Spirit Session is, but unless your group is very non-standard, or is just missing someone for a session or two, this probably won’t even come up until 13th level, and if you happen to be somewhere with available NPCs, even that limiter is removed. I like the feeling of the séance and the need for more participants enough that I’m not sure I would tinker with it too much.

The Undead (Warlock)

If you are thinking that the Undead otherworldly patron sounds a lot like the Undying patron from Sword Coast Adventurers Guide, you aren’t wrong. While the Undying patron mentions a lot of famous undead D&D NPCs, it also throws in a god that died and came back as well, while the Undead takes great pains to mention other famous D&D undead as example patrons. What’s interesting is that the NPCs mentioned in the Undying are more “background NPCs,” like Vlaakith, the ruler of the Githyanki, Vecna, and Fistandantalus, the Undead example patrons are NPCs that have traditionally been more likely to be encountered directly in various adventures, like Acererak, Soth, or Strahd.

  • 1st—Expanded Spell List, Form of Dread
  • 6th—Grave Touched
  • 10th—Mortal Husk
  • 14th—Spirit Projection

About half the spells on the Undead Expanded Spells list are in common with the Undying list. The Undead list has a few more “curse” feeling spells and spooky illusion spells. At the high end, Undying gets an option to garner knowledge, and Undead just keeps living people away and kills lots of them.

Form of Dread allows the character to transform into a semblance of your undead patron, giving you temp hit points, immunity to fear, and the ability to cause fear with your attacks. This is another “proficiency bonus” limited ability.

Grave Touched gives the warlock the ability to survive without food, water, and air, and adds a kicker to the Form of Dread ability that allows the warlock to sub out necrotic damage for the minute that the ability is in effect.

Mortal Husk makes you resistant to necrotic damage, or immune if the warlock is in their Form of Dread. It also grants the warlock the ability to explode with a necrotic blast when they reach 0 hit points, then reforms with 1 hit point and exhaustion. This is another ability that utilizes a random number of long rests.

Spirit Projection lets the PC leave their body for an hour, as if casting a concentration spell. The character is resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage, you can fly, and pass through solid objects (with the standard D&D 5e force damage if you end your turn in something). If you pop Form of Dread at the same time, you can heal yourself when you damage people with necromantic spells.

First off, comparing this to the Undying a bit more, the Undying feels like using the authority of a big bad thing beyond death. The Undead patron feels a bit more like borrowing the actual traits of a more powerful undead being. The theme of the subclass is consistent, but it does feel like it also maintains a subtle distance from what is admittedly a very similar theme in an existing set of rules.

It feels odd that this subclass doesn’t interact with poison damage. It feels like once you start playing with the need to eat, sleep, and breathe, poison seems like something that should also be affected. Is poison common enough that throwing in resistance would be too much? I’m not sure.

I can’t fully put my finger on it, but I don’t like the randomized number of long rests feature that has been introduced. I feel like in the course of a single night of adventure, rolling higher than a one can be a dramatic shift in how often something can be accessed. I know that the Divine Intervention ability has been cited as a guiding principle on this, but making it a week between uses effectively says “not until you finish something major.”

I do love the idea of the warlock’s body just exploding with death energy, and then reforming. That’s a great visual.

Final Thoughts

I love the concept of both of these subclasses. I like the idea of a séance/fortune-telling bard, and I like how it gets channeled into a summon story, then expend the story. I do like that the Undead patron warlock has more of a general ability to lock down attackers with fear, rather than the very specific ability of the Undying to be safe from undead. I think switching damage type to necrotic could be potentially powerful, depending on how often the PCs are running into undead, but that’s campaign dependent, and cuts both ways. I’m pretty happy with the “proficiency bonus limit” mechanic, although it feels just a little weird compared to all of the past “1 + ability bonus” older style abilities.

I am both really intrigued and really cautious about the “bigger die equals more access to effects” concept in the College of Sprits, but I want it to be a satisfying mechanic. It’s probably the thing I most want to see players use to see how they react to it. Now that I’m seeing more of it, I’m not a fan of a randomized number of long rests per “reset” of a class ability, but even with that in mind, I would be interested to see either of these subclasses at work in a few game sessions.

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