What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana: Expert Classes, Part Three–Classes and Subclasses

DND_PHCoverNow, we arrive at the beginning. We’re going to start looking at the classes and subclasses in the Expert Classes Unearthed Arcana. That means, for these purposes, we’re looking at the Bard, the Ranger, and the Rogue. It’s also noted that the Artificer is an Expert, but it wasn’t in the 2014 rulebooks.

For reference, here are the links to the UA itself, and the videos discussing the classes:

All these classes have multi-classing rules included in them which still include needing to have a 13 in a primary ability score, and other than that, I’m not spending a lot of time on that section of any of these entries.

General Expert Class Notes

In case you haven’t gleaned these changes from the previous two articles, I wanted to summarize what we’re seeing in the section specifically regarding classes:

  • Classes are grouped into Class Groups
  • Class Groups have the same sub-class levels
  • The Class Groups have no inherent rules associated with them, but they are used for other rules, such as feat or magic item prerequisites

There are some general themes in this section, in allowing people to use default options and make fewer decisions. I’m not going to go in-depth into all of the gear that each class gets, but instead of the current 2014 gear that often says, “you can have X or Y,” there is just one gear package, or you get a set amount of gold to spend.

There are suggested prepared spells, and as worded, that’s what you have unless you intentionally swap out those spells on a long rest. When you do still have a choice of options, the entry gives you a “default” choice to run with.

I’m not sure I like the emphasis on defaults and presenting fewer choice points. I think when someone is learning the game, it’s cool to give them pregens that have those options chosen for them. I’m not saying everyone needs to be focused on system mastery right from the start, or ever. But I’m also not sure that your primary reference books, which are serving the whole audience, should be written in this manner.

This is a wider discussion, but this goes back to my feelings that you need to firmly keep in mind what parts of the books you are designing for reference, and what parts of the book you are designing for teaching the game.

I touched on this a bit when we were looking at feats, but another design goal in all these classes was to move the “capstone” ability down to 18th level, so that a character could get an Epic Boon at 20th level, which, technically, they could use for just any feat. As I said in the feats section, I’m not sure the Epic Boons were the lost gems requiring a rules rewrite that they are presented as.

Also, I’m not going to touch on this with every class, but every class gets a feat now instead of an ability score improvement, at those levels where they got ability score improvements.

Playtesting Classes with Older Subclasses

The guidance given in this document is that if you want to playtest the new classes with older subclasses, you can use older subclasses and just grant their abilities where they appear in their original source. I think that’s going to muddy a lot of what you may be attempting to accomplish, especially since that means any bard is losing out on a 10th-level ability. I honestly think it would be more instructive to see if an ability showing up a level or two earlier dramatically changes gameplay.

The problem with that, of course, is that so much stuff is being tinkered with, I’m not sure how easy it is to pick out what specific elements would be affecting gameplay.

The Artificer Question

This starts us off with an interesting question. If the Artificer isn’t going to show up in the 2024 books, where will it show up? And it if doesn’t show up, that’s going to leave a lot of question marks hanging over the class, because just the existence of these class groupings presupposed a few things. For one thing, we’re told that Expertise is something that each of the Expert classes has as a class feature. We’re also told that we have a standardized placement of subclass features.

The Artificer currently has subclass features at 3rd, 5th, 9th, and 15th level. That’s not drastically different than the 3rd, 6th, 10th, and 14th level that Experts now share, but it is a difference. Additionally, that means the Artificer is going to be waiting to get features rearranged so that the capstone ability shows up at 18th, making room for the level 20 feat slot that may or may not be filled with an epic boon.

The Bard

Right off the bat, if you are a bard that liked using a rapier, you’re out of luck, because it looks like the classes are geared towards granting access on a more “definitional” basis. You still get a short sword, because it’s been redefined as a simple weapon.

The bard is granted three tool proficiencies, which are all to be used on instruments. This might have been a good place to juggle around proficiencies because this being hard coded into the bard reinforces that they sing and play music and undercuts all that discussion about maybe dancing or orating or whatever to get your results.

Bardic inspiration sees a conceptual change in its implementation.

  • Instead of using a bonus action to grant someone an inspiration die that they can decide when to use, the bard uses their reaction to add a d6 to a roll, or to heal a character d6 hit points–you can only heal when a character takes damage with this effect
  • Bardic inspiration is now limited to a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, which is probably going to be a downgrade for most bards, since it’s pretty easy to hit a 16 Charisma if you want it.
  • Font of Bardic Inspiration, when you get it, lets you reset your dice on a short rest instead of a long rest, and whenever you roll a 1 on the inspiration die, you don’t use it up
  • At 18th level, you get two bardic inspiration dice whenever you roll for initiative

Functionally, a lot of bard colleges that grant extra abilities when someone uses their die can still work, but it’s not going to be player directed any longer–this means a bard can “load” those uses when they have bonus actions, and the player can pick when to trigger them as part of rolling the die without spending an action or reaction, making some of those subclass abilities a lot less flexible

Bardic spellcasting also gets some major conceptual changes as well.

  • Bards no longer know spells–like clerics, they just know everything they can cast, and prepare what they want
  • Bards have access to Arcane spells, but with a restriction–they can only prepare spells from the Divination, Enchantment, Illusion, and Transmutation lists
  • Songs of Restoration kicks in at 2nd level and adds Healing Word, Lesser Restoration, Mass Healing Word, Freedom of Movement, and Greater Restoration to your spell list
  • Magical
  • You get magical secrets at 11th and 15th level, which lets you reserve two slots that you can use to prepare something from a designated spell list, allowing you to branch out from your limited spell selection

Despite being able to use bardic inspiration for healing, this does all seem to make the bard less viable as your primary healing, but we haven’t seen the cleric under this paradigm yet. I understand that referring to spell lists may be easier from a design standpoint, but I have a hard time believing that remembering to reference the specific schools you have access to, as well as keeping track of the slots where you can pick from a wider range, is actually easier than having a spell list.

Changing bards to prepared casters is something that makes me wonder about the wider designs going on, that we won’t see until other classes hit. I like the feel of the bard learning bits and pieces as they level up, instead of tapping into everything, all at once. To me, that’s part of the personality of the class. That may just be my preference.

Instead of picking up Jack of All Trades at 2nd level, you get Expertise at this level. Jack of All Trades slots into your abilities at 5th level, but it now has the very specific limitation that it can only be used for Ability Checks that could have a proficiency bonus applied to them, but for which you cannot apply your proficiency bonus. That’s a very specific way to redline out that bonus on initiative that you had before.

But what don’t you get anymore:

  • Song of Rest goes away. You don’t get to grant your friends additional hit points when they take a short rest if you give them a pep talk or perform for them.
  • Countercharm goes away. No giving your party advantage on saves versus being frightened or charmed while you are performing for them.

Beyond what looks like a drop in overall uses of bardic performance on the front end, a lowering of expected ability to heal across the board, I’ve got some issues with how the bard implements what it does.

On one hand, I can see where having a bard grant a die roll as a reaction means that the die is more likely to be used. Sometimes people just forget to use their bardic inspiration dice. That said, what does this mean for the bard, who is a performer?

When you grant this as a bonus action on your turn, you could be singing a poignant verse, or speaking the line for an epic poem that applies to the situation. You are performing, then granting the benefits of that performance. But what does it mean as a reaction? Are you immediately saying something that’s somehow inspirational in a split second? It feels like trying to maintain what the bard does, rather than the fiction of how it is done.

I’m also not sure why countercharm went away. I’ve been used to the concept that a bard can counter mind-influencing effects because they are performing as a core component of the class. Is this something the designers really feel was overpowered?

Bard Subclass: College of Lore

We’ll see this with all of the subclasses in this document, but all of the subclasses selected are those subclasses that you could summarize as “even more of what the core class is.” I’ve always conceptually thought of bard subclasses as the way in which the part performs or imparts inspiration to others, meaning that the College of Lore bard does this primarily by talking about historical events and details. But feature-wise, I’m not sure the subclass ever felt like it was telling this story. Let’s see how that shakes out now.

  • With the new standardized subclass levels, bards stay pretty much the same, except for gaining an ability at 10th level, to bring them up to four subclass levels.
  • Bonus proficiencies are what you would expect, but I wanted to call them out because they are one of the more “on story” parts of the subclass. You know things about Arcana, History, and Nature, and other things depending on what you picked up before 3rd level.
  • Cutting Words works the same as it did previously, but Improved Cutting words, your 10th level ability, allows you to deal psychic damage equal to what you rolled on the die, plus your Charisma bonus. I wouldn’t be against this, except that adding extra psychic damage is one of those things that other subclasses play with as well.
  • You don’t get any additional magical secrets with College of Lore anymore, and while I get that this would be tripling down on the mechanic given how the core class works now, this was one of the features that also played with the “I’m learning lore” theme of the class.
  • The 6th level Cunning Inspiration is interesting, in that it says, “when any creature rolls your bardic inspiration die,” and then lets that creature roll twice and keep the better number. This is interesting wording, considering the core class assumes the bard is doing all the rolling. I’m wondering if this was an artifact of design, or if this was futureproofing.
  • Peerless Skill at 14th level works the same as before, except you keep your bardic inspiration die if you still fail even after you add the die you rolled to the check.

College of Lore wasn’t really one of my favorites to begin with, because it feels like a “default,” something that does more stuff you already do. This isn’t drastically changed, other than adding the psychic damage, which feels like niche encroachment, and losing the additional extra spells, which is more about the bard class than this subclass.

DND_Art5The Ranger

I love rangers. They have always been my favorite class, and not long after I first encountered them, I read the Lord of the Rings. That means a lot of my thoughts on rangers go back to Aragorn. To me, Rangers are people exceptionally good at traveling in the wilderness and protecting others from dangers found in the wild.

Obviously, D&D has created a recursive reference point for Rangers with Drizzt, which means that a lot of people associate two-weapon fighting with the ranger, even though that element of the character originally came from a racial feature of drow. Then again, Drizzt animal companion is actually a magic item.

More recently, I think Geralt from the Witcher is a reference point as well. He learns how to track down and fight monsters. He keeps people safe from the things lurking in the wilderness by fulfilling bounties on local monsters.

The reason I bring all of that into this discussion is that Rangers in D&D cast spells. That’s a thing that probably isn’t going to be walked back anytime soon. Aragorn never does big, overt magic, but you can argue that he talked to animals and did some healing. Drizzt, despite being a D&D ranger, only really casts spells that are connected to him being a drow. Thanks for nothing on the reference point, Drizzt. Then, we have Geralt, who does a lot of his fighting using his swords, but still uses quick sign spells for a burst of elemental magic, pushing away mobs that get too close, and warding an area long enough for him to drink potions and the like. He also buffs himself with potions that he prepares himself before the fight.

I say that because I want to get a handle on how much a ranger should be using magic in combat, not just in general, because at least some of the thought process in this design seems to be to move some of the rangers abilities to facilitate them casting spells for combat use as well as fighting.

Since several ranger spells are bonus action spells, this also means that two-weapon fighting remains unaffected when they use those bonus actions. This makes me wonder about how accommodating we need to be when someone is selecting tactics. The big problem I have always had with Rangers and bonus actions doesn’t revolve around it being “unfair” that they can’t get in their second attack with two-weapon fighting, but that they have so many things they want to do with the bonus action that they have to plan out when they do it.

Okay, let’s jump into the actual class.

  • Skills and tools look like what we have seen across the board. They give you a list of skills you get, but then a wider list of skills you can pick from if you don’t want the default. Rangers don’t get any built-in tool proficiencies, and it seems like maybe you could come up with something here, I don’t know.
    • Expertise is added to your 1st level abilities for two skills. There isn’t a proscribed list of skills you have to spend it on, but it suggests stealth or survival as iconic ranger specialties.
  • The Favored Enemy ability is now all revolving around Hunter’s Mark, as a spell. It’s on the primal list, so it’s not just for Rangers anymore, but Rangers always have it prepared, and they don’t need to concentrate on it. Which definitely helps when you are in melee combat.
    • This is one of those abilities that changes a lot from the 2014 Player’s Handbook, but not as much if you are using the alternate abilities in Tasha’s.
    • This does mean that if you weren’t using the Tasha’s alternate abilities, you will be losing your advantage to track your favored enemies, and your intelligence checks to know things about them, and no extra languages.
  • Spellcasting starts at 1st level instead of 2nd level, and I suspect this is going to be a change that we see with the paladin as well.
    • This is necessary to make Hunter’s Mark work the way it does, although Tasha’s had a little more convoluted way of achieving something similar.
    • Rangers get spells from the Primal spell list, but they can’t prepare Evocation spells (sorry, some of your Geralt dreams have just been subverted).
    • Rangers are now prepared casters–they know everything on the Primal list they are allowed to have, and just prepare what they want to use on a long rest.
  • You still get a fighting style at 2nd level, but these are formulated as feats now, so you get a limited selection of extra feats, which must be either Archery, Defense, or Two-Weapon Fighting.
    • I get that you want to be a mobile character, but Geralt sure fights with one hand free a lot, and Aragorn likes to swing that longsword with two hands, so I wouldn’t mind these opening up a bit.
    • The Fighting Style Feats are restricted to the Warrior group, but Rangers are allowed to take them, so technically, if you wanted to use a feat later to take one of those other styles, you could–I’m expecting paladins to get this same kind of exception when we see them
  • Notably absent is any form of Natural Explorer–you have no favored terrain, and no special abilities regarding navigating, outside of what you spend your Expertise feature on.
    • I didn’t like absolutes like not being able to get lost, but it also feels weird that nothing other than Expertise, which anyone can get, shows how good you are in the wilderness
  • You still get your extra attack when you take the attack action at 5th level, just like in the past.
  • Roving appears to be what shows you know your way around the environment, but you don’t get it until 7th level. It increases your movement rate by +10 ft, and also gives you a climb speed and a swim speed.
    • Of all of the feats and class abilities that hand out a climb speed or swim speed, this one bothers me the least, because I’m kind of cool with Rangers getting an almost supernatural ability to move around the environment.
    • I’m not sure that getting a greater movement speed and a climb and swim speed “feel” the same as avoiding plant-based obstacles and potential injury that you got with Land’s Stride, especially since other classes get a bonus to speed and special movement rates.
  • At 11th level, you get tireless, which gives you temporary hit points, as well as allowing you the ability to reduce a level of exhaustion even on a short rest.
    • This is a version of the optional abilities from Tasha’s, although the interactions with the new exhaustion rules are a nice addition.
  • Feral Senses just switches to giving you Blindsight to 30 feet, which honestly, this is one shorthand that doesn’t bother me.
  • Foe Slayer moves to 18th level, and increases the die you use for Hunter’s Mark, instead of allowing you to add you Wisdom bonus as extra damage against favored enemies.
  • Epic Boon time comes around at 20th level.

Even where it fixes things, this feels thin to me, based on some of the past lore surrounding Rangers. I do miss favored terrain, and to a lesser extent, favored enemies. With the new flexibility built into a lot of classes, I’m wondering if instead of having you pick those things and have them be set, if this isn’t a good candidate for “pick this when you take a long rest,” and allowing you to switch afterwards.

I would love for you to have advantage on survival and nature checks if you were “attuned” to the right environment, and maybe able to ignore rough terrain in that environment if you it is currently “on” for you. I could also see something like “hunter’s prey,” which would let you pick a type of creature that you are focused on and gaining advantage on intelligence checks on them and survival checks for tracking them, that you could switch out. More like Geralt planning what he’s going to be hunting than an Ranger picking what they hate, which is what favored enemy reinforced.

Also, if Hunter’s Mark is going to be this integral to the class, and Rangers used to be the only class that got Hunter’s Mark (except for a few subclasses), maybe Hunter’s Mark should be a class feature instead of a spell? Making it more efficient for a class to do something that everyone can do (or at least everyone with Primal spells) feels less special than if you just have it as a class feature.

Ranger Subclass: Hunter

Before we start, could we call these Ranger Lodges? Because I really liked that term for Ranger subclasses. Anyway, Hunter was a popular Ranger subclass among the original 2014 options, and in a lot of ways, it’s very much the “Rangery Ranger” if you consider monster hunting their primary calling.

Standardizing the subclass levels doesn’t shift anything more than one level, so nothing too dramatic going on there. About every feature of the Hunter were there was a “chose between these things” is now limited to one of those options and has its mechanics changed a bit.

  • Colossus Slayer is the default Hunter type now, which means every hunter does 1d8 extra damage to anything that isn’t at full hit points.
    • I’m not surprised this is the default, as this is what I saw most Rangers taking in AL when I was active there.
  • Hunter’s Lore lets you know the immunities, resistances, and vulnerabilities of anything that you have used your Hunter’s Mark on
    • This is replacing the Defensive Tactics ability, which was flavored towards defending against general types of attacks
  • Multiattack is a bit of a strange ability–like Favored Enemy, this is about making you better at using a spell that used to be a Ranger spell, in this case, Conjure Barrage.
    • You always have it prepared
    • You can downcast it, so that even though it’s a third level spell, you can now cast it as a 1st or 2nd level spell
    • This also means that getting a ranged ability at this level is the default, with no option for melee, like Whirlwind attack
    • Honestly, I don’t like making everything cool a Ranger can do default back to casting a spell more efficiently, and it feels very weird to introduce downcasting into the mix–I would much rather a limited number of times per day just being able to shoot at everyone in range, even if you simplify it to a single attack roll.
  • At 14th level you can halve damage on yourself from an attack, and then redirect the other half to someone within 5 feet, if you want
    • This is a synthesis of the three original options for this subclass level, two that mitigated damage, and one that redirected damage
    • I’m more than okay with streamlining all of these options into one defensive ability

I’m okay with streamlining everything into Colossus Slayer, and I kind of like Hunter’s Lore, because it still plays into a Ranger knowing about their enemies, and if you are going to make it an “absolute” ability, it makes sense to put it in a subclass specializing in that knowledge. Really not a fan of Multiattack, both because of the use of Conjure Barrage as it’s keystone, and because I would like a melee ranger option for this as well.

The Rogue

The Rogue changes the least, but there is one change to the rogue that is potentially going to change a lot of playstyles.

  • The Rogue also loses out from the standardization of proficiency and training. Instead of getting a list of weapons they know how to use, they now have simple and martial “with the finesse property,” meaning no more longsword proficiency.
    • This is an interesting fix, because Rogues could never use a longsword to sneak attack previously.
  • You get four default skills, unless you want to pick from a wider list, and you get thieves’ tools as a tool proficiency.
  • Expertise is the same for the Rogue.
  • Sneak attack is almost the same, except that you only get it once, on your turn, not once per turn, meaning abilities that let you take an attack with your reaction don’t get it anymore.
    • Good thing this playtest document reversed not being able to crit on a sneak attack, or there may have been a lot sadder Rogue players.
  • Thieves’ Cant gives you access to Thieves’ Cant, and an additional language as well.
    • I’m not sure that the play space around languages is as robust as all the effort around handing out extra languages makes it seem.
    • I’m also wondering if maybe, since the Rogue is a broader archetype now, that features like this belong in subclasses rather than the primary class, since a Rogue could literally just be somebody that learns a bunch of adventuring skills.
  • Cunning Action works the same as it has previously, although with the two-weapon fighting rules, you may get to use it more often.
  • Uncanny Dodge is the same.
  • Expertise shows up again as a class ability, one level later than in the 2014 version of the class, because the Rogue’s subclass gap was rearranged.
  • Reliable Talent uses slightly different language but seems to do the same thing.
  • Subtle Strikes at 13th level now allows you advantage on your attacks when you are attacking someone within 5 feet of your ally.
    • You would have still had sneak attack, but now you are way more likely to hit as well–please kill all mentions of flanking as an optional rule that grants advantage now.
  • Blindsense has gone away, so no targeting an invisible target, at least without using an ability check/action of some sort.
  • Slippery Mind still comes in at 15th level, but now gives you proficiency in Wisdom and Charisma saves, just in case you run into some of those effects that treat Charisma as your force of personality rather than Wisdom.
  • Elusive moves down to 17th level, to make room for the capstone ability being moved to 18th level, but it does the same thing.
  • Stroke of Luck now specifically calls out that it works on d20 Tests and sets the roll to a 20, so for attacks, that now seems to indicate that you would be turning it into a crit instead of just allowing you to hit.
    • This is 18th level, but it’s nice to see this work with attack rolls to allow for critical hit selection, now that critical sneak attacks are back on the menu–it feels a little more exciting than the other capstone abilities for the Expert classes because of this.

I don’t have a lot to say on this, other than that “sneak attack once per turn” really played into a lot of strategies over the last 8 years.

Rogue Subclass: Thief

First off, the Rogue does have an issue with its subclass levels. A lot of classes are going to see at least two of their subclass features within the lifetime of an average campaign, and usually at the middle of tier 1 if not sooner, and the middle of tier 2. The Rogue’s second subclass feature is way over there, on the backend of tier 2, meaning that a lot of Rogue subclasses don’t have a lot of “personality” early in the game.

I will agree this is a problem. I’m not sure I agree that to fix this specific problem, you need to standardize all subclass levels. Is fixing quirks in a few individual classes worth redefining “backward compatible” to mean that you can use adventures and maybe monsters, but subclasses are going to be a mess? Regardless of the answer, we’re moving thief subclass levels from 3rd, 9th, 13th, and 17th, to 3rd, 6th, 10th, and 14th this time around.

The Thief isn’t one of my favorite Rogue subclasses, because its primary purpose was to be a very Roguey Rogue and also hit some of the traditional class abilities that may have been downplayed over the editions.

  • Fast hands still allows for pick pocketing, unlocking, or disarming a trap, but also adds the Search action from the Glossary, meaning that it relies on redefining things as discreet actions to define its abilities.
  • Second Story Work gives you a climb speed, which depending on future clarifications, means you don’t need to make Strength (Athletics) checks to climb up and down walls–it also lets you use Dexterity instead of Strength when you make Jump checks.
  • Supreme Sneak now specifically calls out that you can’t be wearing medium or heavy armor, so even if you invest in medium armor that doesn’t mess with your stealth checks, you can’t use this ability with it.
  • Use Magic Item changes a bit–instead of allowing you to ignore prerequisites for attuning a magic item, it lets you attune an extra item, and adds an additional check when you use charges from items to see if you really used a charge from them.
  • Theif’s Reflexes doesn’t grant you a second turn, but now gives you a number of extra bonus actions equal to your proficiency bonus.

I feel like somewhere out there, someone will find a way to make those extra bonus actions in one turn into a mistake. Adding an extra die roll to using a magic item to see if you “save” charges feels clunky to me. I don’t know how many times I’ve mentioned that giving people other movement rates feels like it’s introducing a lot of problems into the game. The first two abilities feel more “Thief” than the rest.

DND_Art1Final Thoughts (Finally)

I think this document has really ripped off the bandage, and we need to ask for a very clear definition of what backward compatible means. A lot of subclasses either won’t work or will take a lot of awkward patchwork when used with these rules. While that’s bad for 3rd party publishers, and I care about that, I know it’s not a priority for WotC. However, we did just get a rerelease of Tasha’s and Xanathar’s recently, partially sold on the idea that these books were going to be usable with the 2024 books when they came out.

Beyond backward compatibility, I think the shape of this design feels off for me. Defining broad concepts, then defining classes as collections of those broad concepts, feels like it will make for simpler design. However, looking at these examples, it comes at the expense of some of the personality of these classes and subclasses. Is “you can do a thing that other people can do, better than they can” a replacement for “you have a unique ability?”

I also think that building up more broad definitions to assign to discreet rules makes it less intuitive to remember what all goes into that definition. I really don’t want to get back to the D&D 3rd edition paradigm of seeing a word that has a commonly understood meaning and wondering if it has a specific game rule attached to it, which might make its use less obvious.

Seeing classes shift to knowing all their accessible spells and changing to prepared casters makes me wonder about other spellcasting classes. If something like the Wizard shifts to a different paradigm for preparing spells, what is a wizard? D&D has, for most editions, answered that as someone that studies a spellbook to learn spells and someone that can add spells to their spellbook to have access to them. How backward compatible with things be if we attempt redefinitions of some of these broader concepts?

I’m glad we got to see this Unearthed Arcana, to show us the scope of what is being planned. I think it was necessary to get everyone on the same page about the range of changes being considered. I, personally, hope that this will engender gamers that want the game to look more like a compatible iteration of the 2014 rules to make that known, and I hope people who are able to engage with this information, do so, and use it to inform their opinions. I think more than about any other document, this requires you to think about the changes in context of what comes next, instead of just what is presented.

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