What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana 2023 Player’s Handbook: Druid & Paladin, Part One

Yes, I’m lagging behind with this First Impression of the most recent Unearthed Arcana in the One D&D Playtest. Not only did I get busy breaking down the individual chapters in Keys from the Golden Vault, but it was also a bit of a challenge getting back in the swing of One D&D after the January of Broken Dreams. Plus, this is a pretty extensive playtest document.

What’s In the Packet

This time around, our One D&D playtest materials focus on the Druid (and the Circle of the Moon subclass), the Paladin (and the Oath of Devotion subclass), updated Epic Boon feats (just three of them), some revised spells relevant to the Druid and the Paladin, and the Rules Glossary, which lists some changes in the change log section.

Format and Ease of Use

I was really happy with the previous playtest document for adding in the change log for the Rules Glossary to make it easier to look for what has actually been changed, and what is there to have a complete Rules Glossary for the playtest.

If you are new to this, the Rules Glossary in each of these packets is meant to be the Rules Glossary, meaning that the Rules Glossary in the most recent packet is the one you use, even if you are using classes, species, and backgrounds from previous UA packets. Since everything gets reprinted that is meant to be “current,” it’s very handy to know what’s actually new and what has changed.

Unfortunately, in the previous rules packet, they moved all of the new spells and the spell lists into the Rules Glossary. This increased the size of the Rules Glossary, but it made sense since spells potentially affect multiple classes, and aren’t going to be things you “pull forward” when looking at just one class in a previous playtest.

Except now, in this document, spells and spell lists are once again pulled out of the Rules Glossary, and there is a Spells section that reprints only the Divine and Primal spell lists, and the new spells presented in this Unearthed Arcana. So technically, the way this is supposed to work is that you ignore the Rules Glossary section from previous Unearthed Arcana documents. But now you can’t do that, because if you want to use the previous playtest spells, or have the Arcane spell list if you are using the Bard next to the classes in this document, you have to sort through the Rules Glossary.

Essentially what I’m saying is, it really looks like this system is getting too unwieldy for easy use. My preference would be for every UA to be a running document with the most recent information at this point, but that would require someone not just to format the current playtest, but also to bring forward all of the previous playtest material. I don’t know if WotC wants to dedicate the hours to that task, but I’m wondering how much is going to slip between the cracks, especially with the shifting of certain rules in and out of the Rules Glossary that may or may not appear elsewhere in the document.

DND_PHCoverThe Druid

I mentioned this when discussing this Unearthed Arcana on social media, but these playtests are really reinforcing to me what was true in the 2014, that may not have been as evident until we start to pick things apart. I had previously seen, and agreed with, the assessment that the Artificer is a class that gets a lot of its identity from its subclass. It never occurred to me how much that is true of the Druid as well.

Most of the classes in the One D&D playtest so far haven’t tinkered too much with the opening section of the class, i.e. hit points, hit dice, proficiencies, etc. The biggest change we’ve seen  has been a much heavier reliance on weapon groups instead of individual lists of weapons. For example, the short sword got thrown into simple weapons so the Monk could function with only simple weapons, and the Bard and the Rogue lost rapier and long sword respectively due to the new weapon group paradigm.

Druids follow this same pattern, and lose access to scimitars. As far as I can tell, the main justification for druids having access to scimitars in previous editions is that the scimitar kind of looks like a sickle blade, so it seemed like an appropriate weapon for the theme. I don’t think losing the scimitar is devastating for the druid, but I don’t like all of the weapon proficiencies for classes being quite so rigid. It’s part of the overall design trend of One D&D that instead of telling you what a class can do, a discreet part of the rules is defined, and then you are referred to that definition. This was already evident with weapons and armor in 2014, but allowed for a lot of thematic exceptions.

While we’re at it, it’s been an ongoing part of the druid class that they can’t wear metal armor for as long as I can remember. That is no longer referenced in One D&D, and druids only have access to light armor. One of the issues with druids having access to medium armor in 5e is that there aren’t really any medium armors that are naturally non-metal, so this feels like a “fix,” but I’d argue that if you still want the concept that druids don’t encase themselves in metal, it’s no longer a “meta” consideration that outweighs your mechanical decisions. In other words, you could have a druid learn to use heavy armor in the 2014 rules, but they still had to find a way to get non-metal full plate armor, for example, to make use of it. Now, if they learn medium or heavy armor, there isn’t a restriction.

These are a lot of words to spend on class features that may not even affect most players, but it’s kind of important to me, because by defining rules segments, and then building classes out of defined segments, some of the narrative gets lost in the more “efficient” presentation. Is the story of the druid that they can wear metal armor, and that isn’t a consideration, or is the story supposed to be implied from the light armor use, but if you get medium and heavy armor training, you just happen to be an exception to the rule?

Since this is a roleplaying game, we’re using rules to facilitate a collaborative storytelling experience. Implying story elements by including or excluding certain rules “building blocks” is an indirect way of providing storytelling tools.

Tale of the Table

If you look at the 2014 table for the Druid, it has a lot of “dead levels,” i.e. levels where there aren’t any class features, and the class is just getting more hit points and spell slots. If you look at the UA One D&D Druid, you don’t see any “dead levels.” We’re going to look at that with a bit of scrutiny, however, because many of those dead levels are filled with things that 2014 Druid got at lower levels as part of other class features.

Class Features

1st Level–The Druid gains an ability called Channel Nature at this level. This is mainly Wild Shape, moved up to 1st level from 2nd level, but expressly defining that Channel Nature is a resource that can be spend on multiple options, not just Wild Shape. This isn’t a huge change by itself, because Wild Shape was already being used to power different effects in various subclasses which didn’t involve shape changing.

Channel Nature also gets its only entry in the Class chart, because we’re designing for multi-classing at the same time we’re designing to see if the class itself works, and we don’t want people to take one level of these classes to get a Channel feature that scales with proficiency bonus. In this case, you have a set number per long rest, but you can get back a single use of the ability on a short rest. It’s nice to see some resource refresh on a short rest working back into design, and this change is going to be worked back into the cleric design as well.

This does make me wonder if this wouldn’t be a better solution for the Bard as well, who really gets squeezed on the low end for Bardic Inspiration as currently designed, and giving them a short rest recharge would be a least a nod in a more generous direction.

Wild Shape

I wanted to call this out here, because it’s where the class feature first appears. Spending Channel Nature to change shape may not be radically different in concept, but how Wild Shape works is definitely different.

Instead of turning into different animals with a CR threshold and a limitation of movement types based on level, there is are three base stat blocks, which are gained at different levels. These are the Animal of the Land, Sea, and Sky. Your stats don’t change, you just get a different movement speed, armor class, Darkvision, advantage on perception checks, and an attack.

You can’t have a climb speed you reach 5th level. Of course, if you have the Athlete feat, you already have a climb speed in your regular form, at 4th level. You never get Spider Climb as part of that climb speed, so if you are a literal spider, never try to hang from the bottom of something. I’m mainly brining this up because there is a lot of functionality that is lost with this approach.

I can understand not wanting a player character to use the Monster Manual as a Catalogue of Class Features. But Wild Shape was often a puzzle solving situation for Druid players that engaged with the shape changing aspect of the class. What special features of the animal are going to be useful to do the job at hand? These stat blocks are pretty light on special features. Animal of the Sky gets Flyby, which could be handy. Animal of the Sea still gives you a walking speed, so you can be a dolphin that inexplicably can almost keep up with all the people in the party with legs, I guess?

This class feature also no longer lets you use the animal’s form until you run out of hit points. There is no hit point buffer. When you change shape, you are just you. It’s weird to picture a thin, slight of frame druid turning into a bear to fight, at which point they continue to be pretty frail, but they get a slightly better attack than they might have if they hit someone with a stick. A normal stick, not a magic stick that they can conjure with a cantrip. Even with the Multiattack feature you get at 5th level, it feels like this is not nearly as enticing as just casting your Shillelagh or Thorn Whip. The main benefit of each of these forms is moving slightly faster on land, or gaining a swim or fly speed.

The biggest scratching my head moment with this class feature is that unlike the 2014 Wild Shape, you lose the magical properties of any items that you merge with yourself. So if you have that nice set of +2 leather armor on, if you go into battle as a lion, a tiger, or a bear, you’re probably putting yourself at more risk.

In generally, you can describe your animal form however you want, as long as it involves animals, so your druid can look like an owlbear. I’m not sure how I feel about movie trailer based game design. And honestly, the way these stat blocks work, you would actually be better off to just say Druids can look like whatever they want, whenever they want, and they work just like they normally do, but maybe you spend Channel Nature to get a movement speed they don’t have.

This feature is really missing functionality. There needs to be something that addresses both the puzzle solving (hey, this animal can do X, that might be handy) aspect and the combat aspect (maybe I need more hit points if I’m expressly turning into something for combat purposes). There are some other issues coming up as well, but those got cut out of this class feature and patched into dead levels as new “options.”

2nd Level–The Druid gains the Nature’s Aid function of Channel Nature, which allows the Druid to spend Channel Nature uses to either cast Find Familiar without material components, or to generate Healing Blossoms, which are magic plants that can heal allies in a 10 foot radius, where the Druid has to allocate the hit points from this feature among those eligible.

As with using Channel Nature as a resource for other abilities, the Find Familiar aspect of this isn’t brand new. This was an optional feature that was introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, but it’s formalized as a class feature instead of an optional class feature.

I’m not a huge fan of Healing Blossoms, for two reasons. One, it’s not a lot of healing for burning a limited resource like Channel Nature. Two, while Druids can heal, and have always been able to heal, I would almost rather Healing Blossoms was about removing conditions than getting back hit points. Summoning a magical plant feels a lot more like an herbalism function, and I think it feels more satisfying if that’s used to remove an effect rather than being another way to get back hit points.

3rd Level–Druid subclass moves up to 3rd level, as part of the standardization of subclass features across all classes. So like all of the other One D&D classes we’ve seen so far, the subclass levels move to 3rd, 6th, 10th, and 14th from the Druid’s original 2nd, 6th, 10th, and 14th, which is almost a negligible change for this class.

5th Level–This was a “dead level” for Druids previously, and the class feature you gain is a climb speed for your Animal of the Land shape and multiattack, so you now have two attacks in your animal form per attack action. So basically just layering on stuff that would have been handled by CR increases in the 2014 Druid.

7th Level–Aquatic Form gives you access to the Animal of the Sea form. The 2014 version of the druid allowed you to start taking animal forms with a swim speed at 4th level. I don’t think this is a commentary on how “powerful” a swim speed is, but feels more like the first dead level to patch with something extracted from an existing ability.

9th Level–Aerial Form gives you access to the Animal of the Sky stat block, which pushes your ability to change into an animal that can fly one level higher than the 2014 Druid, which got it at 8th level. Not quite as drastic as pushing a swim speed back by three levels.

11th Level–Tiny Critter lets you add tiny to your stat block. You also can’t stay in that form as long as you can larger forms, and you halve the damage you do while tiny. I don’t even know where to start with this, since you could turn into a tiny creature from the time you got Wild Shape in the 2014 rules, basically pushing this feature back 9 levels. I have seen people argue that this makes sense because being tiny would be more magically taxing, and I have seen people argue for this because it’s niche protection for stealthy character classes or classes that can summon tiny creatures, but I’m just going to say, I never once in all the years since 2014 heard of anyone complaining that a Druid turning into a stoat at 2nd level was breaking the game.

13th Level–Alternating Forms lets you switch back and forth between an animal form and your normal form with a Bonus Action, without expending another use of Channel Nature.

15th Level–Wild Resurgence specifically allows you to use the Healing Blossoms function of Channel Nature when you use Wild Shape, without expending another use of Channel Nature.

17th Level–Beast Shapes allows you to cast spells in Wild Shape form, as long as the spell doesn’t have a material component that is consumed upon casting.

18th Level–Archdruid lets you regain one use of Channel Nature whenever you roll for initiative, and also, slows your aging to 1/10 normal (which was the primary function of this class ability in the 2014 version of the rules).

20th Level–Epic Boon shows us the direction they are moving now that the feedback for the playtest has been that the Epic Boons added to each class at 20th level may be coming across as lackluster. In addition to getting an Epic Boon Feat, you gain a +2 Ability Score Increase, and your ability score cap is now 30 instead of 20. I’m interested to see how many ability score bonuses someone ends up log jammed that break free at 20th level, but that feels highly variable based on magic item acquisition, etc. This is a better benefit than just “here is a feat that may be a little better than a starting feat.”

Before we move on from the Druid itself, I wanted to point out that the 2014 Druid had 8 dead levels. This version of the Druid has none, but as I pointed out, a lot of these dead levels are filled with abilities that were pulled out of existing abilities and framed as unique class abilities.

Druids are mentioned as being associated with animals, nature, weather, and the elements. However, seven class features modify Wild Shape. There was some issue with this in the 2014 Druid as well, but pulling out Wild Shape features to slot them in later in the class progression just exacerbates the idea that almost everything the class gets as it progresses, outside of base spellcasting, revolves around changing shape. And this version of the druid gets way less utility out of Wild Shape, even with all of the Wild Shape modification abilities sprinkled in as class features.

Channel Nature was a great opportunity to create some other directions for a nature priest to go, beyond shape changing, but instead, the design made shape changing worse, then modified it in ways that don’t even get it back to where it was in 2014 with all the class features layered back onto Wild Shape. Even the Wild Resurgence ability is really telling, in that it doesn’t let you use Healing Blossoms in addition to another Channel Nature ability, it only works specifically with Wild Shape.

It’s hard to say that this version of the Druid is worse than the 2014 version of the class. It definitely is, if you were relying on Wild Shape. If you were someone that leaned heavily on Druid subclasses that used Wild Shape for Other Things, like the Circle of Spores or Circle of Stars, this Druid is about the same, except if you did find that one clutch application of Wild Shape that you decided to use instead of those subclass abilities, it probably doesn’t work now anyway.

I generally don’t like being this negative in my feedback for something, but it just feels like this is a combination of a power downgrade and class features added just to fill dead levels, that don’t actually rise to the level of useful class features.

Circle of the Moon

Most of the playtest subclasses are the subclasses that feel the most like they are just the core class, but even more. It’s kind of telling that for a nature priest, concerned with balance, the environment, and the elements, that somehow the most “Druid” subclass is the Circle of the Moon, which is hyper fixated on Wild Shape.

3rd Level–Combat Wild Shape lets you cast Abjuration spells in animal form, which, along with the school realignment in the spell lists, means that the Circle of the Moon druid can cast defensive spells and healing while in animal form. They also get to shape change as a Bonus Action, and gain an unarmed strike as a bonus action.

The old version of this subclass increased the CR range that the Druid could reference for animal forms, in addition to the bonus action shape changing. I’m not really sure how letting the Druid cast healing spells while Wild Shaped is going to affect combat, but I don’t have an immediate bad reaction to it. I really wonder if an unarmed strike, using your stats and not your spell attack bonus, is going to make up for the wider range of beast forms to use.

6th Level–Elemental Wild Shape moves up from 10th level to 6th, but it doesn’t do quite what it did before. Instead of allowing for elemental stat blocks, you are just an animal using the Wild Shape stats, with resistance to an element, and your damage type shifts to the element you are resistant to. So you are an Acid, Cold, Fire, Lighting, or Thunder animal. This only works for the attack in the stat block, so your bonus action unarmed strike isn’t doing elemental damage.

The previous 6th level ability gave your animal form magical attacks, and it seems like One D&D, and even recent D&D 5e design, wants to move away from counting attacks as magical, and instead making them something beyond the standard piercing, slashing, or bludgeoning, and I would love to hear the reasoning for this.

Part of me, upon looking at all of the loophole closures that have come about, is starting to wonder if one of my favorite bits of D&D 5e design is about to go out the window. I’ve kind of enjoyed the idea that a weapon can be magical, without a bonus to hit or damage, and it still counts for circumventing resistances and immunities, meaning that you can provide treasure that doesn’t change the underlying math if you don’t want to do so. I’m wondering if we’re going to see something more akin to “this magic weapon does force damage” meaning that anything that doesn’t mention doing something other than piercing, bludgeoning, or slashing damage won’t harm creatures, because “non-magical” isn’t going to be a resistance or immunity type.

10th Level–Elemental Strike replaces the previous versions Elemental Wild Shape, giving you extra damage based on your elemental damage type, which again, makes me wonder if extra dice of damage make up for the special abilities that the actual elemental stat blocks had. Also, your unarmed strike isn’t getting this bonus damage.

14th Level–Thousand Forms works essentially the same way it did in the 2014 rules, giving you unlimited access to Alter Self, but instead of saying you get Alter Self at will, it specifies that it doesn’t use spell slots and doesn’t count against your spells prepared. I don’t know if I’m just not catching on, but this feels like formality of form making a definition more complicated, but it may interact with some other rules change in a way I didn’t catch.

Circle of the Moon has always told a weird “story.” The connotation of “moon” implies a connection to were beasts, but that generally works as a theme. The problem is, being better at turning into animals feels like a separate story than being able to turn into elemental forms, which got crammed into the 2014 rules at 10th level, and into these rules at 6th level. From 6th level on, this is a Circle of the Pocket Monster, and I think it would be clearer to have two distinct shape changer subclasses with more unique stories, separating out “beast” and “elemental,” but the I don’t see that happening.

Channel Nature should really be able to do more than it does, and between the Druid class and the Circle of the Moon, there is a lot going into Wild Shape that I don’t know pays off, especially now that there are features that encourage you going into battle while shapeshifted, but also leave you more vulnerable (no hit point buffer, no magic items functioning while you are Wild Shaped).

While I want all of the One D&D classes to be backward compatible, if you are going to go as far as the One D&D playtest druid goes, I would rather yank Wild Shape out of the core Druid completely, give them a satisfying Channel Nature that is more broadly “nature priest,” and then let all of those unique Wild Shape powered abilities in subclasses all be their own Channel Nature aspects.

Essentially, the Druid is trying to change Wild Shape into Channel Divinity by way of Channel Nature, but is way too focused on the legacy aspects of Wild Shape to make it as versatile as Channel Divinity has always been for the Cleric.

The Change of Seasons

I’ve spent a lot of words on the Druid, so we’re going to break this First Impression into different parts. Next time around, we’ll start taking a look at the Paladin, and maybe touch on the new spells and Rules Glossary changes. Or maybe it will all be about the Paladin. I won’t know until I get there. Thanks for taking the ride with me!

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