Unearthed Arcana: Mages of Strixhaven, Part 3
Table of Contents
Illustrated by Francisco Miyara
In this ongoing series of articles, we examine the recent Mages of Strixhaven Unearthed Arcana released by Wizards of the Coast, and take a closer look at one of the most interesting developments put forth by the UA - cross-class subclasses.
Cross-class subclasses are subclasses that can be taken by more than one class, departing from the existing 5e design of subclasses being exclusive to a single class. Part 1 considered the significance of this new design paradigm, both in relation to past works, as well as to future character options. Part 2 addressed some of the wide-level design issues with the cross-class subclass design that many commentators had highlighted, and posited solutions to these problems.
Unfortunately, based on recent news from WOTC, it appears that cross-class subclasses will not be getting an official release in the upcoming Strixhaven setting book. This is disappointing, but understandable given the tight timeline between the UA's release in June 2021, and the announced release date of the setting book in fall 2021.
The cross-class subclass model, as presented in the Mages of Strixhaven UA, is a promising concept let down by flawed execution. This resulted in it making a poor first impression on the D&D playerbase at large, souring the community to the concept as a whole. However, now that a proof of concept of the model exists, it can be further iterated and improved on, if not by WOTC itself, then by intrepid homebrewers such as ourselves.
Which brings us to the thrust of this series - here, we will re-visit the five Strixhaven cross-class subclasses, adopting the solutions discussed in Part 2 to improve on their UA versions thematically and mechanically.
With regard to theme, the most authoritative source on the lore and flavor of each college at present is the Planeswalker's Guide to Strixhaven, which condenses and summarizes the worldbuilding behind Strixhaven. In addition to this, we will also be using the cards from the Strixhaven set proper and the Strixhaven Commander decks as the frame of reference to gauge thematic merit.
Mechanically, we will focus on fleshing out the concept of class-unique features for the cross-class subclass model. This is an ongoing endeavor, so numbers are subject to change in future iterations - the main objective at this point is to capture the theme of the subclass in a meaningful and fun way.
Of course, there are limits to departing from the existing shared feature structure. Take things too far in this direction, and we may as well design a distinct subclass for each class, which defeats the point of the cross-class subclass model. Instead, it is important to understand why it is necessary to depart from the shared structure, and when it is appropriate to do so. There are a few considerations that are particularly relevant in this regard:
- Different classes gain subclass features at different levels, and may gain a different number of subclass features in total - for instance, Bards typically gain four subclass features in total, whilst Clerics may gain five to six in total. Further, not all subclass features are created equal - the Cleric's Divine Strike and Potent Spellcasting are fairly minor features, relatively speaking, but they must still be accounted for.
- Different subclass features serve different functions. For instance, 'ribbon' features that grant armor, weapon or skill proficiencies may not provide much mechanical utility, but help to reinforce the subclass's theme. In contrast, some features provide a mechanical benefit (e.g. Combat Wild Shape for the Circle of the Moon Druid, or Maneuvers for the Battle Master Fighter) that serves as the 'marquee' feature for that subclass, being a feature unique to that subclass that will be most heavily utilised by it in gameplay.
- The 1+, 6+, 10+, and 14+ breakpoints that were chosen for the UA only map neatly onto Druid, Warlock and Wizard, which gain subclass features at roughly that pace. Other classes, such as Sorcerer and Bard, gain subclass features at levels that don't match these breakpoints, leading to awkward situations where certain classes are excluded from features that would otherwise be shared.
With this in mind, the approach that we take to designing cross-class subclasses and deciding when to depart from the shared feature structure must strike a balance between achieving thematic and mechanical cohesion for the subclass identity, and remaining true to the subclass design philosophy of each individual class. A Lorehold Wizard should feel like a Lorehold Wizard, but it should also feel like a Lorehold Wizard, if that makes sense.
As this is a fairly ambitious task, we will work on one college at a time, evaluating its existing UA incarnation and sketching out a first draft of a revised version, beginning with Lorehold.
Mage of Lorehold
The College of Lorehold is focused on history and archaeology, gleaning wisdom and power from the teachings of the past. The Mage of Lorehold subclass is open to Bards, Warlocks, and Wizards, and grants the following features:
|1+||Lorehold Spells, Ancient Companion|
|6+||Lessons of the Past|
Classes, Spell List
On the positive side, the spell selection for Lorehold Spells is both thematic and relevant, and it makes sense for Bards and Wizards to be part of this college. Warlocks are a little questionable, but can be understood as forming a bond or pact with a particular historical figure or figures as your patron. The big flavor miss is the omission of Clerics from this college, as discussed in the previous article.
This feature, while certainly thematic and unique, is pretty overtuned for a 1st-level feature that's being granted to primary casters. The precedent for a persistent, scaling companion of this sort is the Battle Smith Artificer's Steel Defender, which is balanced by the fact that the Artificer is a half-caster. The Ancient Companion is actually slightly powered down relative to the Steel Defender - it has watered down versions of Repair and Deflect Attack in Healer's Light and Warrior's Protection, and you can only have one of those options at any time. That said, Sage's Counsel provides a great deal of out-of-combat utility, something that the Steel Defender lacks.
Ancient Companion frontloads the Mage of Lorehold subclass with power, and is indisputably the 'marquee' feature here, which makes it regrettable that it's too powerful to be kept in its current form - not without upstaging Steel Defender hard, anyway. Lorehold's theme of summoning historical figures into stone statues can be realised in other ways, and it's the Healer/Sage/Warrior archetypes that actually look most promising here - but more on that later.
Lessons of the Past
As promised, the Healer/Sage/Warrior archetypes come up again. This feature is fairly balanced, and grants decent benefits that play into the 'damage and healing' mechanical theme that Ancient Companion explored. The flexibility of being able to change your chosen archetype with every long rest is also nice.
War Echoes, History's Whims
History's Whims doesn't seem to have a strong link to Lorehold's theme beyond its name. The feature mentions the 'wild nature of time itself' and entering a state of 'chronal chaos', and the reference to time magic is rather out of place - nothing in the primary theme sources suggests that Lorehold magic directly manipulates the flow of time in such a manner. Mechanically, this feature is a mixed bag, granting bonuses to defenses and mobility that play more into the 'time manipulation' theme than the Healer/Sage/Warrior archetypes that were previously set up.
War Echoes is slightly more on-brand in that it refers to 'pulling from the magic of the past', and causing history to repeat itself, which would be appropriate for a Lorehold mage. However, there is some possibility that being able to consistently impose vulnerability might be overpowered, as it runs against the general trend of damage squishing in 5e.
Overall, it is clear that the existing Mage of Lorehold subclass has room for improvement, both thematically and mechanically. The revised subclass will aim to achieve several goals, including:
- creating a consistent and cohesive subclass identity, both in terms of mechanics and theme;
- ensuring that the subclass identity stays as true as possible to the primary theme sources, whilst remaining within the infrastructure of 5e; and
- making use of class-specific features where appropriate in order to remain true to each class's design philosophy, and make better use of class-unique resources.
Mage of Lorehold, Revised
Illustrated by Cristi Balanescu
The table below sets out the features that each class in the Mage of Lorehold subclass receives at certain levels. Certain features are shared across all classes, whilst specific features are specific to certain classes.
Lorehold Spells, Field Historian, Lessons of the Past
Channel Divinity: Reconstruct History
Boon of Legend
Echoes of Power
Reduce to Memory
Level 1+ Mage of Lorehold Feature (all)
You learn the cantrip sacred flame and the 1st-level spell comprehend languages. You learn additional spells when you reach certain levels in this class, as shown on the Lorehold Spells table.
Each of these spells counts as a class spell for you, but it doesn’t count against the number of spells you know. If you are a wizard, you can add these spells to your spellbook upon learning them, without expending any gold, and prepare them as normal.
spirit summoning, knock
speak with dead, spirit guardians
arcane eye, stone shape
destructive wave, legend lore
Illustrated by Bryan Sola
Level 1+ Mage of Lorehold Feature (all)
You gain proficiency with medium armor and martial weapons, and one of the following skills of your choice: Arcana or History.
Lessons of the Past
Level 1+ Mage of Lorehold Feature (all)
You draw inspiration from the great deeds accomplished by heroes of legend, manifesting their skills through your magic. Whenever you finish a long rest, choose one of the following archetypes: Healer, Sage, or Warrior. You gain access to a bonus cantrip based on the archetype you choose:
- Healer: resistance
- Sage: guidance
- Warrior: green-flame blade
You can cast this cantrip normally, or you can cast it as a bonus action a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus. You regain all expended uses of this ability when you finish a long rest. Whenever you finish a long rest, you may choose a different archetype. If you do, you lose access to the previous benefit and gain access to the new one.
Illustrated by Campbell White
Level 2 Mage of Lorehold Feature (Cleric)
You can use your Channel Divinity to recreate feats of spellcraft you’ve studied in historical texts. As an action, name a spell of 5th level or lower that doesn’t have costly material components and spend a spell slot of at least 1 level higher than that spell. You cast that spell as part of this action. That spell must have a casting time of 1 action, and is cast at its lowest level, regardless of the level of spell slot used to activate this feature.
Level 3 Mage of Lorehold Feature (Bard)
When you grant Bardic Inspiration to a creature, and that creature uses the Bardic Inspiration die on a type of roll that corresponds with the archetype you chose for Lessons of the Past, the creature can roll the Bardic Inspiration die twice and use the higher result.
- Healer: saving throw
- Sage: ability check
- Warrior: attack roll
Level 6+ Mage of Lorehold Feature (all)
Through your studies, you learn how to better listen and take to heart the teachings of history. You gain additional benefits from your Lessons of the Past feature:
- Healer. Your hit point maximum increases by an amount equal to your level in this class, and you gain the same number of hit points. When you regain hit points from a spell, you regain an additional 1d8 hit points.
- Sage. You have advantage on ability checks using the Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion skills. Additionally, once per turn, when you deal damage to a creature with a spell of 1st-level or higher, you can deal an additional 1d8 force damage to that creature.
- Warrior. If you use your action to cast a cantrip, you can make one weapon attack as part of that action. If that weapon attack hits, the target takes an additional 1d8 radiant damage.
Level 8 Mage of Lorehold Feature (Cleric)
You gain the ability to infuse your weapon strikes with divine energy. Once on each of your turns when you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can cause the attack to deal an extra 1d8 radiant damage. When you reach 14th level, the extra damage increases to 2d8.
Illustrated by Mads Ahm
Echoes of Power
Level 10 Mage of Lorehold Feature (Wizard)
You weave lessons drawn from history into your magic, inspiring your allies with every spell you cast. When you cast an abjuration, divination, or evocation spell of 1st level or higher, choose any number of friendly creatures within 60 feet of you that can hear you (including yourself), up to your proficiency bonus. Those creatures receive a bonus to the next roll they make within 1 minute, depending on the type of spell you cast:
- Abjuration: saving throw
- Divination: ability check
- Evocation: attack roll
The bonus equals the level of the spell that you cast. A creature can only receive one bonus from this feature at a time. If a creature that already has a bonus from this feature would receive another bonus, it chooses which bonus to keep.
Illustrated by Andrey Kuzinskiy
Boon of Legend
Level 10 Mage of Lorehold Feature (Warlock)
Your bond with the heroic spirits you draw inspiration from deepens, allowing them to infuse your pact boon with a greater degree of their power. Your pact boon gains additional abilities depending on the archetype you choose for Lessons of the Past.
Tome. You gain additional spells known:
- Healer. greater restoration, mass cure wounds
- Sage. contact other plane, scrying
- Warrior. holy weapon, steel wind strike
These spells count as warlock spells for you, but they do not count against the number of spells you know. You can also cast either of them once without a spell slot, and you regain the ability to do so when you finish a long rest.
Blade. You learn a maneuver depending on the archetype you chose, and gain four superiority dice, which are d8s. You regain all of your expended superiority dice when you finish a short or long rest.
- Rally. On your turn, you can use a bonus action and expend one superiority die to bolster the resolve of one of your companions. When you do so, choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. That creature gains temporary hit points equal to the superiority die roll + your Charisma modifier.
- Maneuvering Attack. When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one superiority die to maneuver one of your comrades into a more advantageous position. You add the superiority die to the attack's damage roll, and you choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. That creature can use its reaction to move up to half its speed without provoking opportunity attacks from the target of your attack.
- Precision Attack. When you make a weapon attack roll against a creature, you can expend one superiority die to add it to the roll. You can use this maneuver before or after making the attack roll, but before any effects of the attack are applied.
Chain. When you summon your pact familiar, one of the special forms you can choose for it is a spirit, as the spirit summoning spell. The spirit’s type (Healer, Sage, or Warrior) corresponds to your choice for Lessons of the Past. If a statistic in the spirit’s statblock depends on the level of the spell slot used to summon it, use your proficiency bonus in place of the spell’s level. Additionally, you can use an action to command the spirit to use its Multiattack action.
Talisman. Depending on your choice for Lessons of the Past, the wearer of your talisman adds their proficiency bonus to certain types of saving throws and skill checks:
- Healer: Constitution, Medicine, Survival
- Sage: Intelligence, Arcana, History
- Warrior: Strength, Athletics, Acrobatics
Illustrated by Campbell White
Reduce to Memory
14+ Mage of Lorehold Feature (all)
As you cast a spell of 1st level or higher that deals damage to a creature or object, you can use a bonus action to attempt to erase it from reality, leaving the only trace of it in the annals of history. When you damage an object or reduce a creature to 0 hit points in this way, it is disintegrated as though you had hit it with the disintegrate spell. If a creature still has hit points after you damage it in this way, it must make a Charisma saving throw against your spell save DC or be banished for 1 minute, as the banishment spell.
You can use this feature a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
Breakdown of Revised Features
Having set out a revised vision of what the Mage of Lorehold subclass could look like, let's take a closer look at the reasoning behind the design. To maintain mechanical and thematic cohesion and consistency within the subclass, shared features have been clustered around common breakpoints. For Bard, Cleric, Warlock and Wizard, that means 1+, 6+, and 14+. Note that subclass features are still gained at the levels indicated in the main class table, i.e. 3 for Bard, 1 for Cleric and Warlock, and 2 for Wizard.
At 1+, the Field Historian feature is slightly better than a ribbon, in that it grants relevant proficiencies that many of these classes rarely get - medium armor and martial weapon proficiency are fairly rare to see for Bards and Warlocks, to say nothing of Wizards. It's true that the Cleric gets relatively little out of this feature, as it already has medium armor proficiency, but this is intentional - Cleric receives an additional spike of power early on in its Channel Divinity, so it can afford to get a little less out of this feature. Field Historian is of course inspired by the card Quintorius, Field Historian, and plays into Lorehold's theme of being boots-on-the-ground archaeologists and researchers, rather than armchair scholars. Cards and concept art also depict Lorehold characters in sturdier clothing and armor than most mages, as well as studying the art of war and swordplay, lending credence to the idea that they would gird themselves appropriately for action in the field.
Lessons of the Past also makes a return here, though in an altered form - the Healer, Sage and Warrior archetypes were the most thematically resonant and mechanically intuitive elements of the original Mage of Lorehold design, and they have been adopted here. Bonus cantrips, like class spell lists, are a simple way to convey different themes that characters can readily incorporate into their playstyles. Likewise, Lorehold Spells are mainly the same, with locate object being replaced with spirit summoning, to maintain one of the most thematic elements of the original UA.
At 6+, Ancient Teachings is basically the old Lessons of the Past, repurposed here as an upgrade to the level 1+ feature. These benefits reinforce the playstyle that the bonus cantrip from the new Lessons of the Past enables, and create more depth within the Mage of Lorehold subclass.
At 14+, Reduce to Memory doesn't build on the Healer/Sage/Warrior archetypes, but plays into a different aspect of Lorehold - its power to rewrite reality by turning something that exists in the present into a relic of the past, as seen in cards like Reduce to Memory (of course). This feature was also inspired by Rip Apart, which was more akin to erasing a person or object from the record of reality, judging from the flavor text. An earlier iteration of this feature was called Purge the Record, and did something similar, except that it would have had more wide-reaching repercussions in terms of erasing memories of the erased person or object. This would have been more thematic, but had more complicated implications, so it was simplified into its current iteration.
This leads to another observation - particularly pertinent when designing setting-specific content, but also of general relevance. If there is space to design a feature that doesn't need to connect to existing design elements within the subclass, it is preferable to draw on primary theme sources for inspiration rather than cutting from whole cloth, as was the case with War Echoes and History's Whims.
The space between common breakpoint levels is used for class-specific subclass features. This includes Channel Divinity, improvements to Bardic Inspiration, Divine Strike, as well as unique level 10 features for Warlock and Wizard.
Reconstruct History acts as a smaller Wish, allowing the Lorehold Cleric to replicate any spell of 5th level or lower with a higher level spell slot. This is flavored as recreating magic that the cleric may not be able to cast themselves, but has studied in historical texts. A Lorehold Cleric might have researched accounts of an archmage's exploits in war to recreate the wall of force spell, for instance. There is some precedent for this idea in an older card - The Mirari Conjecture was a saga based on recreating the powers of an immensely powerful magical artifact years after its demise by studying its lingering effects on the world. Like Reconstruct History, The Mirari Conjecture translated this concept into mechanics by returning instants and sorceries from the graveyard to your hand, allowing you to cast them again.
Warsinger follows a trend amongst Bard subclasses of having an improvement or alternate use for Bardic Inspiration at level 3. Serendipitously, the three rolls that Bardic Inspiration can be applied to correspond neatly to the Healer/Sage/Warrior archetypes, so it was just a matter of finding some sort of mechanical benefit to incentivize players to lean into a playstyle that reflects the theme of that archetype. Granting pseudo-advantage on the Bardic Inspiration die roll is simple enough, and actually scales in power subtly as the Bardic Inspiration die grows.
Boon of Legend is fairly content-packed, but bear in mind that a Warlock only has one Pact Boon at a time, and can only choose one of the Healer/Sage/Warrior archetypes at a time. Further, the benefits gained from each boon-archetype combo are unique, but minor enough to remain mechanically balanced. The exception is Pact of the Chain, which essentially brings back the original Ancient Companion. If there was one instance where it would be appropriate for a full caster to receive a permanent, scaling companion, it would be the Pact of the Chain Warlock (though whether Warlocks should count as full casters remains open for debate), so why not?
Echoes of Power actually plays into the earlier observation that the Healer/Sage/Warrior archetypes correspond to the three common rolls that Bardic Inspiration can affect: saving throws, ability checks, and attack rolls. This parallel can also be extended to the abjuration, divination, and evocation schools of magic, which allows Wizards to tailor their spell selection to better play into Lorehold's themes. To some extent, this gives Wizards access to a more precise form of Bardic Inspiration, and while some might decry such overlap as detracting from Bard's unique niche, this is acceptable - and even ideal - when the area of overlap is in line with the mechanical themes of the subclass.
The End of History
With the revised Mage of Lorehold subclass, we not only address the mechanical and thematic issues with the original version, but explore and establish a new model for cross-class subclasses that will be further developed going forward. Next up, we take a look at the Mage of Prismari!
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