What Do I Know About First Impressions? Beastheart and Monstrous Companions (5e OGL)

Beastheart CoverWhile working on the reviews and first impressions I was going to post on the blog, a quiet, stalking presence crept into my email inbox. When I wasn’t looking, it sprung itself on me, pinning me to the keyboard. Then I realized that James Introcaso had sprung his monstrous ally upon me. So, yeah, sit back and enjoy this first impression of the Beastheart and Monstrous Companions supplement from MCDM.

Disclaimer

As you may have surmised from the above, I’m working on this article from a review copy provided by James Introcaso at MCDM. I haven’t used any of this material in a game, but I am familiar with D&D 5e, as well as other MCDM products. Because this product is introducing mechanics to do things that haven’t been covered before in D&D 5e, at least not in this particular way, I’m going to write this up as a first impression article.

A Tour of the Kennels

This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is currently the only format for the supplement. This is a 48-page document, including a credits page, a single-page table of contents, a four-page piece of fiction, and a full-page OGL statement. This document has a two-column format, with various sidebars, with headers and stat block formatting like D&D 5e products.

The product is available in full color, but there is also a black and white version. MCDM doesn’t skimp on artwork. The cover is very traditional pulp barbarian cover rendered by Martin Sobr. Each companion creature has a half-page illustration, and the included subclasses for the Beastheart class each have a full-page illustration. This is full-on pulp barbarian artwork, so nobody is wearing much in the way of clothing, male or female beasthearts included. The orcs and goblins aren’t wearing much either. Come to think of it, the skeletons are bare as well. These are, however, much more action pulp in nature.

A 48 Page Book for A New Class?

To be fair, this is a 48-page supplement introducing the general rules for beast companions, stat blocks for beast companion versions of many well-known creatures, the beastheart class, and five subclasses.

Caregivers

The base concept on which the beastheart is built is the idea of companion creatures and their assigned caregivers. The caregiver is the character that is the primary “friend” of the beast, and the one that will be providing the proficiency bonus that modifies its statistics. This caregiver can issue orders to the companion creature with a bonus action, and the companion creature acts on the caretaker’s turn.

The companion’s armor class, hit points, saves, skills, attack rolls, and damage are all modified by the caregiver’s proficiency bonus. Unlike many of the newer variable stat blocks introduced with spells and class features recently in D&D 5e, the difficulty of many of the companion creature’s abilities is 10 + proficiency bonus, closing a little bit of the gap in what often determines DC, i.e. the controlling characters proficiency bonus and ability score bonus added to 8.

Companion creatures roll a die on their turn to see how much ferocity they build up. The caregiver can spend ferocity to get the companion creature to execute special attacks. If the companion creature exceeds a certain threshold of ferocity, they must be calmed or attack the nearest target, even if they are friendly, and then lose all ferocity they have accumulated. Companions have three different special attacks, which cost an increasing amount of ferocity, and which can only be triggered by a caregiver of an appropriate level.

Companion Creatures

The following creatures have been included as companion creatures. These are customized versions of these creatures, and while they do similar things to their standard versions, some of their more powerful abilities are only triggered with their higher-level, more expensive ferocity actions.

  • Basilisk
  • Blood Hawk
  • Bulette
  • Deinonychus
  • Dragon Wyrmling
  • Earth Elemental
  • Gelatinous Cube
  • Giant Spider
  • Giant Toad
  • Giant Weasel
  • Hell Hound
  • Mimic
  • Owlbear
  • Sporeling
  • Worg

Of note with this design paradigm is that it walks between older D&D 5e design and newer conventions. While individual creature types have distinct stat blocks (in comparison to the broader creatures summoned by some of the newer summoning spells, or the ranger companion beasts of the land, air, and sea), they have the variable statistics the newer “pet class” and summoning spell stat blocks.
There are some general guidelines for creating new companions, but since each is specifically built to be a companion creature, this might be more work than a DM is interested in performing. The supplements mentions that future issues of MCDM’s Arcadia will be featuring more companion creatures, and that MCDM’s upcoming bestiary will also be including companion creature statistics for some of the creatures found therein. This makes me wonder how far along that project is, or if this is really planning support for this class potentially years ahead of time.

Companion Creatures and the Beastheart-less Party

One of the first things I started to wonder when reading the rules for companion creatures is how it would change the math of an adventuring party, and if the beastheart was meant to be fully functional without the companion, for the purposes of “encounter math.” The answer is addressed in a sidebar.

According to the sidebar, a party with a companion creature needs to have encounter difficulty shifted one higher to get expected results. In other words, if an encounter is meant to be “hard” for a party of four characters, if the party includes a companion creature, that encounter should be considered “medium” instead. On the other hand, a beastheart PC with a companion creature is equivalent to any other character in the group, and their companion creature does not affect the “encounter math.”

I’m glad this was addressed in the supplement, because I like to know what the design intent was, given that this is both a class feature and a subsystem to use without that class. It does feel a little awkward to just shift an encounter level down one, rather than counting the companion as another party member. On the other hand, encounter math is one of the fuzziest areas in D&D 5e design.

The Beastheart

The beastheart is a d8 hit dice class that gains light and medium armor and shields. They gain simple weapons, as well as a quirky list of additional weapons that feels like a mix of inspirations from the archetype across media but doesn’t feel the most . . . logical?

The beastheart never gets the extra attack feature, so much of its damage output is based on the increased base damage that they grant their companion creature as they gain levels. In addition to the special abilities that individual companions have, the beastheart learns primal exploits, special abilities that are also fueled by spending the companion’s ferocity. Unlike the abilities native to the companion, some of these exploits give the beastheart greater abilities, and some allow the beastheart to work in tandem with their companion.

The beastheart gets double proficiency bonus on animal handling, which is important, because many of their high level abilities assume that their companion have built up well past their threshold where they might go berserk.

Magical Conundrums

As they get higher level, the beastheart gains an ability called primal strike, which can add extra dice of different damage types to their attacks. They get this instead of additional attacks, and this is another way to increase their damage output. That said, while the additional die is listed as doing a specific type of damage, the attack itself isn’t considered magical.

Additionally, while some attacks add different damage types to a creature’s attacks, nothing ever spells out that the companion’s attacks become magical.

Subclasses

Subclasses for the beastheart are determined by the nature of their bond with their companion creature. The companion bonds include the following:

  • Ferocious Bond
  • Hunter Bond
  • Infernal Bond
  • Primal Bond
  • Protector Bond

These will be imperfect comparisons, but some of these bonds “borrow” some flavor from existing classes. The ferocious bond feels like the barbarian flavored subclass, the hunter bond feels like the ranger flavored subclass, and the primal bond feels a little like the druid flavored subclass, although it accomplishes this feeling with auras and elemental abilities, rather than spellcasting.

The Infernal bond is all about escaping the clutches of hell and slowly giving your companion more and more fiendish abilities and trappings. The protector bond is very much the defender/bodyguard subclass.

Both the infernal bond and the primal bond gain access to additional exploits, giving them the ability to spend ferocity on more overtly supernatural hellish or wilds-based abilities. The ferocious bond gains special abilities when charging, intimidating others, retaining ferocity, and doing extra damage based on built-up ferocity. The hunter bond grants the beastheart the ability to spend ferocity to mark prey for extra damage, increasing the ability to stalk prey, and increasing stealth. The protector bond grants extra hit points and armor class, imposes disadvantage on anyone attacking someone other than the beastheart and their companion, and gains the ability to spend ferocity to attack opponents threatening other party members.

Magic Items

There is a little more than a page of new magic items, geared towards enhancing the features of the beastheart and companions. This includes badges that gives the beastheart’s companions bonus damage and other effects on their attacks. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beam lenses, which gives your companion creature laser eyes. Slaps these on your bloodhawk and you can legitimately name them Laserbeak.

Final Thoughts

Having an animal companion is one of those things that is always going to interest a solid number of players. I would be really interested to see how the companion rules play out in a party without a beastheart. I appreciate that the rules spell out that you shouldn’t have more than one companion creature in a party at one time.

I like the spread of creatures that were included. If you are going to go the route of distinct stat blocks for individual creatures, this is a good range of creatures to start. The ferocity management reminds me of my days playing Hordes and keeping my dragonspawn from going berserk.

I’m not sure how I feel about using animal handling as a means of calming a creature. While it’s a simple process as presented, it reminds me too much of some of the hoops that players had to jump through to deal with animal companions in 3rd edition and Pathfinder. It also feels like having the companion save would be more in line with how D&D 5e handles these kinds of situations, and since the caregiver’s proficiency bonus influences the creature’s save, they would still influence the creature’s success rate.

I’m really curious to see if the various ferocity spends that add different damage types make up for the fact that there isn’t an automatic transition to the companion creature having magical attacks. While a DM can give the party the proper badge or another magic item, I still wonder what 5e looks like if you take it on face value that magic items aren’t a given. It seems like most classes have the built-in point where they allow for magical attacks just to reinforce the idea that magic weapons aren’t mandatory.

Future Wishes

I’m interested to see what other archetypes might be emulated with new subclasses. For example, it seems like you could do a mount-focused subclass with special abilities keyed towards riders. I’m also interested to see the additional creatures that manage to get the companion creature treatment in the future. I like that there are plans to support this class with the proposed bestiary.

In general, while I don’t want a ton of “official” classes added to WotC’s books, I really like seeing what 3rd party developers do with new classes. While this one dovetails with some concepts that are also part of the ranger, I think it’s a pretty distinctive concept and fertile ground to explore. I’ll be interested to see more classes in the future, to see what jumps out as a fantasy archetype for others.

Correction (12-20-2021)

I missed the second paragraph for Improved Signature Attack on page 30, which spells out that the beastheart’s companion has magical attacks starting at 5th level when this class feature kicks in. I apologize for missing that detail in the initial first impression. 

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