What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana 2021 Gothic Lineages
I feel like it was just yesterday when all the Unearthed Arcanas said “2020,” and it was literally the only good thing to contain the numbers 2020. But, low, what rises from the ashes of such a cursed year? A new Unearthed Arcana, clothed in burial shrouds, carrying with it predation, curses, and unlife. That’s a fitting follow up to last year, I think.
More to the point, the Unearthed Arcana released today is all about lineages. This is the first time we’ve seen a race/ancestry/lineage article for a while in Unearthed Arcana, and I’m interested to see what this looks like.
This is a five-page document that includes the following new lineages:
- Dhampir (If you don’t know what this is, watch Blade or Blade II–I’m not sure Blade III will help)
- Hexblood (Someone touched by the magic of hags or other fey)
- Reborn (Utilitarian lineage that can work for a Frankenstein’s monster or a kind of revenant)
As we get a little further into this document, “utilitarian” is a watchword here, but I’ll explain more later.
What’s a Lineage?
There is a pretty important design note included in this document, which is essentially the statement of intent from the designers regarding how “race” is going to be used in the future. The big takeaways are as follows:
- “Race” exists now as kind of a legacy term for compatibility, but it won’t be used in reference to species from this point on
- If a new lineage has a physical trait, it’s going to be something like darkvision, a breath weapon, or inborn magic, not ability score increases
- Languages and skills are a function of culture, and are going to be decoupled from lineage a bit going forward
While ability score bonuses may not be linked to inborn traits, the examples in the article still note that characters at this phase of the game will still be picking a +2 to one ability and a +1 to another, in order to make sure the same “spread” of ability scores are at play in the game.
This is more definitive than the language used in Tasha’s, which was more careful to say that races, as presented in the Player’s Handbook, were “archetypical,” but that you can use optional rules to break those archetypes for character customization. This is more of a statement that “race” coupled with ability score bonuses is not a design space that even the “core” D&D books want to explore going forward.
Additionally, this Design Note mentions that there is no longer an alignment entry for lineages. Alignment + race is always going to be walking a very dangerous line when it comes to what you are communicating to your player base, so I think this is a wise move, although this almost flew past my radar because I’ve been ignoring alignment almost completely since 5e came out.
I know there were people that didn’t think Tasha’s went far enough, and I think it’s important to clearly communicate that the rules such as custom lineage aren’t just about providing rules options for customization, but are about addressing problematic content that has been present in the game for a long time. I think this statement, being more clearly expressed than in Tasha’s, is a good move, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in some final printed copies of D&D books.
Creature Types and Meta-Rules
There is an important meta-concept that isn’t so much introduced in this Unearthed Arcana, as it is clarified. Any creature that is listed as having two creature types (like humanoid and ooze for example) is affected by anything that affects either of those character types. This was spelled out for some creatures that have previously appeared, but those entries said things like “X counts as creature types Y and Z, and is affected by things that would affect either of those creature types” but because this “multiple types” concept is getting more play, it is now clarified as an assumed feature of the rules.
While this Unearthed Arcana is telegraphing the shape of things to come, these specific lineages are rules elements that might be used to “replace” current options that the player has, so it is noted that you may envision your character as human, elf, etc., but the lineages in this article supersede what you get for those initial options. Unlike some past efforts, like swapping out subrace abilities or playing with “trading X trait for Y,” this is just a matter of saying, “yeah, I’m an elf, but all the game rules information comes from the Dhampir lineage.”
I’m going to get into this more later, but this really feels like its leaning on the rules representing your lineage being about how you want that lineage to impact your story, not as a means of modeling the absolute rules of the reality of the setting.
One thing that I think could have been spelled out more clearly is that in discussing racial traits, it mentions that racial traits are replaced by the lineage traits presented here. However, carefully reading the design notes, you may also pick up that skills, armor, weapon, or tool proficiencies aren’t “racial traits” under this definition, so if you don’t pick a “core” race to build a lineage from, you are missing a few of the skills or proficiencies your character should have. This is a little confusing, and it might be worth it to spell this out in a “final step” for these lineages.
For example: “If you didn’t pick a race prior to building your character, make sure you chose from X, Y, and Z to finish your character.”
Because these rules are now “standard,” it mentions before we even get to the lineage trait that everyone picks a +2 and a +1 Ability Score Bonus to assign, and can speak common and one other language appropriate to the campaign.
The half-vampire is a very popular concept. I’m not just saying this because one of the last characters I played in Pathfinder was a Dhampir Inquisitor, which is about as trope ridden as you might expect. Did I mention he had an armored longcoat for his armor? Because monster hunters need to wear dusters, right?
The main mechanical elements of the Dhampir are:
- Humanoid and undead
- Medium or humanoid
- Faster than average movement rate
- Spider climb
- Bite attack
- Special bite benefits
Being able to spider climb is one of those kinds of creepy things that vampires can do that is fun even if you don’t absolutely need it in the moment. Big fan. I also like that this doesn’t get overly caught up in forcing you to grapple someone before you use your bite attack, because that feels like a thematic, but mechanically punishing, way to model the classic vampire attack.
You also get a special benefit of biting someone (who isn’t a construct or undead), a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus. This bonus, if activated, gives you a bonus equal to the damage you rolled on your bite on your next ability check or attack roll. Alternatively, you can spend one of those bonuses to regain hit points equal to the damage of the bite.
I like tying the bonus hit points to the bite more than I like tying the future ability check or attack to the damage. It may not be that hard to remember your +3 or your +2 until the next time you make a check, but the healing is much more immediate. I kind of like the idea of having advantage, which also serves to tempt you to be “active” in taking an action versus “passive” by choosing self-preservation. The problem with advantage is, if this is meant to be a major power move, it won’t stack with advantage, but it will stack with other bonuses. I think I would still rather see advantage, all things being equal.
There are two tables in this entry, one for hungers, and one for origins. Hungers gives you a variety of things that you might drain from someone to feed and includes things like spinal fluid or dreams as well as blood. Origins gives you a nice range of vampire adjacent events that could explain your current condition. If you picked “psychic energy” with “a parasite shares your body,” you could even play this as a White Court Vampire from the Dresden Files books.
Let’s revisit utility . . . because the origin and the hungers include, but don’t exclusively include, the traditional means you would get a half-vampire, this actually lets you model a wide range of vampiric creatures. You could even be a partially turned ghoul if your hunger is about flesh or raw meat.
I noticed that this version of the Dhampir completely avoids any kind of charm or compulsion effect and given the reaction to the Love domain from last year, I think that’s a wise choice.
The introduction to the Hexblood, and its name, made me think I was going to have a harder time visualizing what this lineage was all about. However, the origins table helps a lot with this one. You are “kind of” feytouched, but not in a happy go lucky way. More in a “marked for some terrible deed we need you to do” kind of way.
The main mechanical elements of the Hexblood are:
- Humanoid and fey
- Medium or small
- Standard speed
- Resistance to charms
- Spells including hex that you can cast once per long rest, or with your spell slots, if you have them
- The ability to give nails, a tooth, or some hair to someone else, which you can use to kind of use them as a familiar or send them messages–you get the body part back after you use the ability
I enjoy whimsical fey stuff, but I love creepy fey content. A lot of the description leans towards hags and being cursed or potentially marked for transformation and assimilation into a hag coven. That said, this has some great “changeling” undertones. Not the doppelganger-adjacent type, but the traditional, “the fey swapped your child at birth” kind.
I’m pretty sure if the player in my Tales of the Old Margreve game had seen this option when she picked Baba Yaga as her Warlock patron, she would have picked this as her lineage. You do have a kind of visible laurel, tiara, or crown that grows around behind your head to mark you, so you can do your defensive, angsty withdrawing into the hood move as well.
Also, if you want a dangerous and more glamorous, but still creepy changeling story for inspiration, you could probably do worse than to check out The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson for inspiration for a character using this lineage.
Let’s get our revenant on! You were dead, and now you aren’t. But what’s an adventurer to do when their heartbeat is no longer as reliable as it once was? Well, keep adventuring, I guess. We’re going to touch on utility here again, because the Reborn can also multitask. In this case, you could be someone that died, and came back to finish up your business, or, you could be a bunch of corpses stitched together, trying to figure out what’s locked in the brain that’s giving you locomotion.
The main mechanics of the Reborn are:
- Humanoid and construct or humanoid and undead
- Medium or small
- Standard speed
- Advantage on death related rolls, you don’t eat or get diseases, and you don’t sleep, but in a creepy way, not in a philosophical elf way
Because part of your “story” is that you don’t fully remember everything from before you passed on, you get the ability to add a die to a skill check that you are making, a number of times per long rest equal to your ability bonus. I think this is one of the few times I can recall a rule in 5e specifically calling out an ability check that uses a skill, instead of just mentioning either a specific skill, or saying “ability check.” I know this is to make it feel like you are recalling something you knew, rather than just doing something that goes beyond your normal limits, it’s just not a rule convention I can remember seeing previously.
The reborn also has a chart for lost memories and one for your origins. There are several origins that hint both at returning from the grave and being animated using bits and pieces of things. I love that all the lost memory prompts are leading questions, instead of absolute bits of knowledge. You get questions like “where did you get that scar,” or “why don’t you like doing something now that you used to enjoy.” This is what the random bits in character backgrounds should be . . . evocative leading questions, not generic facts.
The only slight bit of weirdness I might point out with this is that if you, for whatever reason, are playing a character that previously existed, it might be harder to “randomly” remember skills, since you would have an idea of what you were previously capable of doing. That’s a relatively minor quibble for a use of this lineage that’s probably not going to be its main application.
These lineages build on the concept that we’ve already seen in subclasses, where characters gain abilities a number of time equal to proficiency bonus, instead of per ability score bonus. I like it as a limiter, because it doesn’t mean that people will under or overvalue ability scores or traits that trigger on them, but every time I see that in subclasses, I picture what the original subclasses would look like constructed this way, and I’m doing the same with “races” now as well.
If you are someone that thinks darkvision is overutilized in 5e, you may not be thrilled with the inclusion of all of these lineages, although I think its pretty apropos across the board (except maybe a humanoid-construct Reborn, but that’s just me).
The spells granted by the Hexblood have a proficiency limiter, but they also have the additional “kicker” of being valid spells to case if you have a class with spell slots. I think there may be some subclass abilities that have done this, but I can’t remember any race or lineage rules touching this topic before.
D&D Stories Past
Comparing early D&D 5e design with more recent design, I think I have identified a pattern. Maybe I’m wrong, but this article really kind of jumpstarts my hypothesis.
A lot of earlier subclasses were a way of doing the same thing D&D has done in the past, in slightly different ways. We don’t want to embrace a 4e class that might not be seen as “iconic,” but here is a scaled back way to Warlord. We want to make sure you can specialize in a school of magic or be a fighter mage without multi-classing, because those are classic D&D tropes.
Even the “races” of D&D, despite Appendix N, were primarily doing the bare minimum to represent a narrow band of “goodly races.” It wasn’t worried about what “story” the dwarf player was telling by being a dwarf, it was worried about modeling what a dwarf is in a world where there are persistent rules to the universe. It didn’t do it well (both because of biological determinism and because D&D just likes to pretend its simulationist in almost all editions), but that’s what it was doing, and to some extent, that’s what early 5e was doing.
Don’t get me wrong, even early 5e is still probably my favorite iteration of D&D. It’s just that with all of the design developments, there wasn’t as much of a connection between what the rules were doing and if there is any kind of story riding along when you triggered an ability.
The newer subclasses make me feel like you are playing “base class” until you have an idea of what you want your story to be. Then maybe your subclass’ story is at least equal to the “story” of your class, rather than running in the background. Being an Assassin might give you some benefits to killing under some circumstances, but being a Phantom makes you feel like a creepy death-shrouded killer.
Traditionally, race over past D&D iterations define what you are, class defines what you do, and in many editions, what you are might give you a boost to what you do. We still see that same split between Who You Are/What You Do, but in broader strokes.
These lineages make me think of wide narratives. The elf’s story in D&D isn’t very active, and it is very much the D&D elf’s story. Part of the elf’s story is that they might be good wizards, thieves, or rangers. The lineages here tell broad stories. The Hexblood might be running from the fey, or working for them, or something in between. Part of that rejection or adoption might be class choices, but it won’t be because the Hexblood is suboptimal at doing a particular job.
I’m pretty happy with this round of Unearthed Arcana, and I like the design space that these lineages carve out. The best thing I can say about them is that I would love to see the original Player’s Handbook crew get redesigned in this same manner.
I have minor quibbles on the dhampir, and I might want the “eldercross” to be something like a broader mark rather than being focused on the revealing crown. I’m still torn, because I think active features are more exciting than passive features, but the passive features of the reborn fit the theme very well. I really want to see these get some use at a table, and I’m interested to see more of this style of design.