What Do I Know About First Impressions? Arcadia Issue 9 (5E OGL)
Nine issues of Arcadia already? I remember when this magazine was just a single issue with a dream. At any rate, let’s get ready to look at the latest issue of MCDM’s D&D 5e focused magazine.
Between the Covers
This issue is forty-nine pages, including a page of links to supporting material, a map for the included adventure, a page of author bios, and a full-page OGL statement. One thing that’s noteworthy is that after last month’s trial run of ads, this month’s issue doesn’t have any. I don’t know that the lack of them is any kind of statement on the future state of ads, it’s just an observation.
The artwork and formatting is always on point in this magazine, but I really like the cover this month. Something about sailing down a creepy river surrounded by sea spirits just works for me, especially with the muted tones and the colors used.
What’s On the Menu?
This month, there are three articles. One includes subclasses, another provides advice on urban campaigns and building cities for intrigue games, along with new backgrounds, and the third includes rules for 0-level characters as well as a funnel adventure for those characters.
Losing Our Religion
The theme for this set of subclasses are characters that are dependent upon outside entities for powers and yet have in some way alienated themselves from those sources of power. In this case, that means subclasses for clerics and warlocks.
First off, Anathema is one of my favorite words, and I’m still sad that the 3.5 D&D book on aberrations had its name changed from Codex Anathema to Lords of Madness. In this case, the Anathema domain draws power from the disdain a god feels for their former servant.
I’m not a fan of cleric concepts that don’t have clearly defined tenants. That doesn’t mean I’m against “godless” clerics, but in 3.5, I saw way too many examples of people that wanted to get their power from a concept that required nothing from them. If belief is going to provide power, it should also provide structure, if nothing else for roleplaying purposes. In this case, they give the example that characters that remain clerics of the Anathema domain often oppose gods that abuse their power, and they work to keep fallen deities from rising again. I like that outline of what tenets an Anathema cleric might follow, and this is a prime domain for the Athar in Planescape.
- 1st–Domain Spells, Anathematic Rites, Divine Rancor
- 2nd–Channel Divinity: Divine Derogation
- 6th–Conduit of Ruin
- 8th–Potent Spellcasting
- 17th–Scornful Condemnation
The spells granted by the domain involve protection, weakening, curses, banishment, and limiting mobility, which all fit the theme well, especially the curses and abjurations. You also gain a proficiency bonus number of bane spells that you can cast as a bonus action. That’s a nice benefit that makes it worth it to cast bane.
The Channel Divinity option deadens energy associated with the gods, so within thirty feet you can create a field that lowers healing effectiveness, or potentially short circuits radiant or necromantic damage, about 50% of the time.
Conduit of Ruin lets you spend your reaction to upgrade the die from your bane spells. This ability upgrades at 11th and 17th level. Potent spellcasting is one of the two standard options that clerics get at 8th level, in this case, making cantrips more damaging. Scornful condemnation removes your need to concentrate on bane spells and upgrades your bane spell to do psychic damage as well as imposing a penalty.
Overall, I really like the story of this subclass, and the mechanics really reinforce that story. I would love to see someone lean into the roleplaying that this subclass suggests.
The Atonement domain represents clerics that have returned to the fold, and now focus on helping others make amends for their mistakes. Story-wise, this makes for a good domain for a character to transition into from their previous domain.
- 1st–Domain Spells, Bonus Proficiencies, Selfless Reprieve
- 2nd–Channel Divinity: Shield of Martyrdom
- 6th–Hallowed Reprieve
- 8th–Divine Strike
- 17th–Exalted Protector
The domain spells for this subclass all involve ablating, removing, or preventing damage, with higher levels providing some curse negation and banishment abilities. You also pick up either Medicine or Religion. Clerics of this domain also picks up the ability to fail a save to ensure a successful save for an ally.
The Channel Divinity option redirects damage to you and provides temporary hit points. Hallowed Reprieve upgrades your Selfless Reprieve ability a proficiency bonus number of times per long rest. Your 8th level cleric option is divine strike, because I guess sometimes when you are atoning for past deeds, you still need to smite someone.
Exalted Protector at 17th level lets you use your Selfless and Hallowed Reprieve features on multiple allies at once.
I think this works well for the story that it’s trying to tell, but this is also the domain that I imagine should pop up when you Google “what domain should a cleric of Ilmater be?” Even beyond the story of atonement, if a whole faith, or a specific order, is about divine suffering or martyrdom, this is going to work well.
The Swindled is a warlock patron subclass that is all about a patron that has granted power to a warlock but has somehow gotten the worse end of the deal and can’t really expect any fealty from their vessel. This shifts the powers that this subclass grants from the type of patron to the personality of a warlock that subverts the will of their patron. Of course, not being able to cut off a warlock from the power you granted them doesn’t mean you can’t get revenge on them in other ways.
- 1st–Expanded Spell List, Eldritch Thief, Spell Heist
- 6th–Magical Larceny
- 10th–Eldritch Gambit
- 14th–Plunder Spirit
Your bonus spells all revolve around divination and avoiding detection or being surprised, as well as getting into places you wouldn’t otherwise have access. Eldritch Thief lets you manifest thieves’ tools and use charisma to manipulate them. They also have the telltale signs of your patron’s power, so your warlock with an undead patron may have bones for tools, as an example. Spell Heist lets you perform an 8-hour ritual to project yourself into your patron’s domain to steal spells you don’t currently know, and you get to use your special tools to do so.
Magical Larceny allows you to use your magic tools to move a spell effect from one creature onto yourself. You can also just end the spell without transferring it to you. Eldritch Gambit gives you counterspell, and a free use per long rest. If you end a spell with this ability or Magical Larceny, you gain temporary hit points.
Plunder Spirit is your 14th level ability, which gives you a range of abilities whenever you drop someone to zero hit points. You can regain spell slots, or steal proficiencies or the use of a spell from a spellcasting opponent.
This is yet another subclass that nails the “story” that it’s trying to tell. These abilities are all about stealing power, and it’s a great roleplaying prompt to ask your player how they got one over on their patron. Now, the 800 lbs. magical effect in the room–this subclass gets published just after WOTC has started to shift away from “spellcasters” using actual spells, which could make these abilities harder to put into play.
On the flip side, the Compound is a warlock that has made pacts with multiple, unrelated entities. Who is going to call in a favor when, and will it conflict with another patron? Who knows?
- 1st–Expanded Spell List, Counsel of the Many, Motley Support
- 6th–Warding Convocation
- 10th–Eldritch Sundry
- 14th–Partitioned Mind
Your expanded spell list is, well, kind of all over the place. It’s fitting but doesn’t specifically tell a story in and of itself. That said, this story would be hard to summarize with a spell list, outside of just having lots of different options. Counsel of the Many gives you some skill and tool proficiencies, as well as weapon proficiencies, which you can swap out when you finish a short or long rest. Motley Support gives you the ability to use your reaction to grant an extra die to your ally’s rolls a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus.
Warding Convocation lets you use your ability to summon help to create cover for you, make it easier to attack at point blank range, and to save for concentration. You get this once per long rest but can spend your Motley Support uses to trigger this ability as well.
Eldritch Sundry gives you an extra Pact Boon feature and gives you more utility for your Mystic Arcanum feature. Partitioned Mind lets you tap into your ability to serve multiple masters to maintain concentration on two spells at one time, once per long rest.
Motley Support and Warding Convocation both allow you to describe multiple spirits that help you operate, and I love the roleplaying opportunities inherent in describing the servants your different patrons may have sent. Like the other subclasses in this article, the mechanics really do seize on the story, although the spell selection is less integral to that story, and I had to reread some of the class features a bit more carefully to fully parse what they do. I don’t think that’s a design or development problem as much as it’s the tricky wording you see when an ability pushes into territory that hasn’t been used much in the 5e rules.
And All the Rest
This article wraps up with two sample NPCs, as well as four retainers using the Strongholds and Followers rules, representing characters from the presented subclasses. In this instance, I think that even if you aren’t going to use the NPCs for other purposes, their backstories are great for showing off how to make the subclasses relevant to a campaign. This is especially true of the sample Swindled Warlock.
Power is Where You Take It
The next article in this issue is about creating a city environment specifically for an intrigue campaign. The process that is outlined assumes you are building a city from scratch, but there are several elements that could be used to build out parts of an existing city.
The article emphasizes the importance of clearly defined neighborhoods, factions, systems of government, infrastructure, and business in the city. After walking readers through the steps, the article also provides examples of what the creation process looks like, with a sample city, factions, and plot seeds.
The background presented in this article are:
- Citizen Activist
- Activist Journalist
- Political Strategist
- Public Intellectual
While each of these backgrounds provides a feature, proficiencies, languages, and equipment, they don’t have individual traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Instead, there is a large chart of urban intrigue related versions of these charts. I personally like more thematically unifying traits in situations like this. All these backgrounds assume that you are going to be interested in participating in city politics or changing aspects of the city.
Since political intrigue and activism might mirror some real-world issues, there is also a paragraph on safety tools and links to various resources. This is more than I expect in an article, but it’s a cogent example of where safety tools may come up.
I agree with all the city/intrigue best practices advocated in this article, and I think it’s a worthwhile article for anyone that wants to get themselves in the right mindset for it.
This article is focused on borrowing the concept of the zero-level character from Dungeon Crawl Classics and porting it to D&D 5e. While there have been examples of zero-level characters in other editions of D&D, this isn’t recreating those rules. They are specifically capturing the spirit of the zero-level character funnel.
If you aren’t familiar with the concept, this means all random rolls for ability scores, a d4 for hit points, a random occupation, and some simple gear. Unlike Dungeon Crawl Classics, your character has a set number of proficiency slots, and can choose to learn skills or tool proficiencies during the adventure, which supersedes whatever they may get from their class.
Players run multiple characters, and whoever survives gets to level up to 1st level. Instead of picking a background, you pick a feature from a background, and you’re ready to start your new career.
I love Dungeon Crawl Classics, but I must admit, I’m not extremely enamored of porting its sensibilities into D&D. You can ridicule me if you like, but I’ve gotten a little more used to making decisions about a character, rather than letting fate decide.
I do like being able to assign proficiencies as the characters take actions. It reminds me of some of the older edition versions of 0-level characters, where at different decision points characters could pick up class features, until they end up “building” their final class. That’s trickier in 5e, however, given that elements like subclasses kick in at different levels, etc.
The Price of Passage
The funnel adventure involves the villagers entering the local caves to save captured residents from the monsters within. There are some random encounters, as well as the triggers for them, and in a few places, they automatically happen inside the caves.
There are a lot of nice interactions in this adventure, like the randomly determined mushrooms, trollstink slime that can make it more likely you have encounters, as well as an encounter with some goats that can resolve in multiple ways. The final monster is a troll, specifically because the PCs will need to produce an effective way to leverage the troll into a source of fire or acid.
My biggest problem with this part of the adventure is that, to make the troll a lower CR creature, the troll included is a “Troll Pup.” The write up specifically calls out that “the only good thing about a troll pup is that killing it means it won’t grow into an adult troll.”
I know trolls are weird, scarry, hard-to-kill monsters. But they are also intelligent creatures. They are giants, not any kind of alien or extraplanar creature. So this brings up a lot of old-school “kill the intelligent creature with impunity because it’s born evil” vibes. I’m not a fan, and it feels like it would be possible to produce a CR 1 regenerating creature that isn’t effectively a child.
I love the subclasses in this issue. They are well-executed, and they make effective use of the current design mode of abilities that trigger off proficiency bonus, and abilities that can be recharged with alternate resources from the subclass. The only real hiccup in them involves a very, very new design paradigm from WOTC which may negate a lot of previously viable abilities.
The intrigue article does a good job of isolating what makes for memorable city campaigns and provides some solid backgrounds. They follow the standard construction for backgrounds, which is to say that features are a little more nebulous than I would like, but that hasn’t been an area that WOTC has spent much time redesigning.
I wish I liked Filthy Peasants! more than I do. My enjoyment of D&D just doesn’t align as well with not knowing anything about my character that isn’t randomly generated. I’ve run Dungeon Crawl Classics and enjoy it, but it’s a much different vibe for me. Even my expectations of 0-level characters are more in line with the AD&D 1e/2e bridge product Greyhawk Adventures presented the concept, where you play a single character and chisel them out of what you choose to do in a starting adventure.
That, coupled with the “kill the young monster” trope just didn’t work for me. That’s sad, because this was quite a roller coaster compared to how much I loved the subclass article and enjoyed the city intrigue article.
I’m not sure I want 0-level rules, but I wouldn’t mind seeing something that more resembled the “fill in the blanks” version of the process from Greyhawk Adventures. I would love to see more D&D subgenres with pointers and unified backgrounds. I enjoy that.
I know I’m usually a GM, but I really love subclasses as a piece of 5e design, and I enjoy seeing how they present the theme that they posit, so I would love to see other story elements as strong as “in opposition to my source of power” was in this issue.