Roleplaying

Unearthed Arcana Review: Wild Soul Barbarian

A barbarian with glowing eyes and a big ax.
Unearthed Arcana (UA) is a system Wizards of the Coast uses to test new D&D 5th Edition content before it makes its way into any official material. Players are invited to use these new additions to the game and give their feedback on balance and possible changes that should be made before an official release.* Recently Wizards released new UA containing an additional subclass for each of the twelve official classes. As our resident 5th Edition expert I’d like to throw my two cents into the discussion and take a detailed look at each of the subclasses, what they bring to their parent class, and any changes or improvements I’d make. First up, we have the barbarian.

The new addition to everyone’s favorite rage monster looks like Wizards wanted another try at sorcerer’s Wild Magic origin. This new barbarian gains a grab bag of random effects and magic-like abilities that can be used even while raging. They also gain a 6th level support ability that, in its current state, completely breaks 5E’s spell slot mechanics. But before I get to that, let’s look at each of the subclasses’ features starting at level 3.

Level 3 – Lingering Magic

At 3rd level, your body reacts to the presence of magic. You can cast the  detect magic  spell without using a spell slot or components. Constitution is your spellcasting ability for this spell. You faintly glow a color corresponding to the school of magic you detect (you choose the colors).

You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Constitution modifier (minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

This ability, while situationally useful, is on the lower end of the power scale. Detect Magic is available to every spell caster in the game, so it’s likely your party already has access to the ability. Classes like cleric and wizard can even cast the spell for free as a ritual, making this feature even less useful. The glowing color* is a fun piece of flavor, but if anything is a mechanical disadvantage as it makes hiding the ability almost impossible.

Level 3 – Wild Surge

Starting at 3rd level, magic erupts from you as you rage. When you enter your rage, roll on the Wild Surge table to determine the magical effect produced.

If the wild surge requires a saving throw, the DC equals 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Constitution modifier.

Wild Magic

D8 Effect
1 Necrotic energy bursts from you. Each creature within 30 feet of you takes  1d10  necrotic damage, and you gain temporary hit points equal to the sum of the necrotic damage dealt to the creatures.
2 You teleport up to 20 feet to an unoccupied space you can see. Until your rage ends, you can activate this effect again on each of your turns as a bonus action.
3 You conjure  1d4  intangible spirits that look like flumphs  in unoccupied spaces within 30 feet of you. Each spirit immediately flies 30 feet in a random direction. At the end of your turn, all spirits explode and each creature within 5 feet of one or more of them must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or take  2d8  force damage.
4 Arcane energy enshrouds you. Until your rage ends, you gain a +2 bonus to AC, and whenever a creature within 10 feet of you hits you with an attack, that creature takes force damage equal to your Constitution modifier.
5 Plant life temporarily grows around you: until your rage ends, the ground within 10 feet of you is difficult terrain.
6 Arcane energy taps into the minds of those around you. Each creature within 30 feet of you must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or you see a glimpse of the creature’s thoughts, learning how it plans to attack you. As a result, the creature has disadvantage on attack rolls against you until the start of your next.
7 Shadows weave around a weapon of your choice you are holding. Until your rage ends, your weapon deals psychic damage instead of its bludgeoning, slashing, or piercing damage, and it gains the light and thrown properties with a normal range of 20 feet and a long range of 60 feet. If you drop the weapon or throw it, the weapon dissipates and reappears in your hand at the end
8 A beam of brilliant light lances from your chest in a 5-foot-wide, 60-foot-long line. Each creature in the line must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or take  2d8  radiant damage and be  blinded  until the start of your next turn.

Unlike the previous ability, Wild Surge is a workaday feature of this subclass. Given that a barbarian rages during roughly every combat, any player attempting to pilot a Wild Soul will be rolling on this table multiple times per short rest. But that leads us to the question of how good these results are. On the surface, this table reminds me of the Wild Magic sorcerer, a notoriously weak sorcerer origin with a table of mostly do-nothing results.

Thankfully, this feature isn’t that bad. For starters, there are only eight results, which at least makes remembering what happens on any given roll easier. Additionally, this new feature actually has some useful results. #4 is the strongest, making our barbarian harder to hit and punishing anyone able to land a punch. The other results, while not amazing, are at least serviceable, with only result #3’s flumph summoning as a truly awful result. While this feature isn’t as weak as its sorcerous counterpart, it suffers from a similar issue: it’s impossible to plan around random results. Many of these abilities work best if we know they’re coming, and that’s simply not possible with Wild Surge, putting its overall power level pretty low in my estimation.

Level 6 – Magic Reserves

At 6th level, you can channel the magic surging inside you into other creatures. As an action, you can touch a creature and roll a  d4. The creature recovers an expended spell slot of a level equal to the number rolled. If the creature you touch can’t recover a spell slot of that level, the creature instead gains temporary hit points equal to five times the number rolled.

You take force damage equal to five times the number rolled.

When you reach 14th level in this class, you increase the die to a  d6.

Time to talk about that game-breaking ability I teased you with earlier. On its face this ability sounds reasonable, enabling our barbarian to sacrifice their health to revitalize their allies. There’s only one problem: there is no limit to the number of times this ability can be used. What makes this a problem is that with certain abilities, the restored spell slots can be used to heal the barbarian for more than they cost to restore. This means that the feature can be used as many times as needed until everyone has their spell slots back and the entire party has 20 temporary hit points.

But how can our barbarian be healed in such an efficient manner? 5E is known for how bad an investment its healing spells are. Unfortunately, a level 1 spell from a level 2 character breaks all of this, namely a Life cleric/druid with Goodberry. With the cleric’s Disciple of Life ability, each level 1 Goodberry heals a total of 40 hit points,* twice the maximum amount of damage our barbarian can suffer from while using this class feature. Although this is the easiest way to break Magic Reserves, it certainly isn’t the only one. Healing Spirit can also out-heal the damage, and effects that halve the force damage, such as Brooch of Shielding or Warding Bond, make it even easier to overcome the intended drawback of this feature. Assuming the game-breaking nature of this feature is fixed, I think it’s a pretty cool ability, and a strong one at that. It just requires a bit of retooling.

Level 10 – Arcane Rebuke

At 10th level, the magic crackling within your soul lashes out. When a creature forces you to make a saving throw while you are raging, you can use your reaction to deal  3d6  force damage to that creature.

This is a cool ability that, while not particularly strong, has good flavor and gives our barbarian something useful to do with their reaction. I particularly like the idea of combining this with the Mage Slayer feat, forcing casters who dare to target us to make concentration checks at Disadvantage to maintain their powerful spells.

Level 14 – Chaotic Fury

At 14th level, you become a wellspring of wild magic while you are raging. As a bonus action, you can reroll on the Wild Surge table, replacing your current effect with the new one.

A nice boost to our Wild Surge feature, the main problem with this improvement is its cost of a bonus action. Most optimized builds have something useful they want to be doing with their bonus action each round, usually in the form of an extra attack from Dual Wielding or Polearm Master.  This feature clashes with that, and honestly, most results on the Wild Surge table are worse than an extra attack, making using this ability a tough sell.

Level 14 – Improved Magic Reserves

At 14th level, you increase your magic reserves die to a  d6.

This contains all the same problems present at level 6, but now our barbarian can restore spells up to level 6. Womp womp.

Overall, I think this subclass has a great and unique flavor but, outside of a game-breaking ability that I assume they’ll fix before release, lacks the mechanical power to keep up with Totem Warrior and Zealot, which are options the barbarian already has. Thankfully, I have some easy changes that could be made to the class to tune up its power a bit and bring it closer to being a competitive mechanical choice.

What I’d Change

The first change I’d make is to the Wild Surge table. I’d reduce the number of options down to four, whether by allowing the player to choose four out of the eight original options or just by reducing the list of options for everyone. In the latter case, I’d keep the strongest four options, namely results 1, 2, 4, and 5, so that the players would always get a decent result and better allow them to plan for said result.

I’d also change each of the remaining four results to try and equalize their power level. For result #1 I’d allow the barbarian to choose which targets are affected, since friendly fire is a touchy subject, especially when it comes without warning. I’d also reduce the temporary hit points generated to half damage dealt, as I don’t want the barbarian to have easy access to a huge pool of extra hit points that they effectively double with their rage damage resistances. For result #2 I’d increase the teleportation distance up to thirty feet, bringing it on par with Misty Step. Finally I’d increase result #5’s circle of rough terrain to fifteen feet and have it only affect hostile creatures.

Next, I’d change a few things about the Magic Reserve feature. Most importantly, I’d impose a limit on how often our barbarian can activate the ability. There are a couple of ways this could be done, but my favorite is to tie it to their constitution modifier per short rest, ensuring that the ability can’t be abused. I’d also make the force damage non-reducible to avoid resistance cheesing. Finally, I’d expand the spell slot restored to any slot of a size equal to or below the number rolled. This avoids a situation where the ability does nothing, and since I’m nerfing it elsewhere, I think it’s fine to bump its power in this manner.

For Arcane Rebuke, I’d introduce some simple scaling to the ability’s damage with the barbarian’s level, since 3d6 falls off hard when characters reach higher levels.

Finally, I’d change Chaotic Fury to an effect our barbarian can use at the beginning of their turn without spending any kind of action. Wizards has done this with other abilities, and I think it’s a great solution to the problem of having too many things to do with our very limited action or bonus action. An option that would normally be too weak to eat up one of our two actions becomes a lot more enticing when we can do it free of charge.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Reiksson

    I think my alteration to magic reserve would be to make the damage taken to reduce maximum hit points until a long rest(maybe too long) and recover a number of spell levels (i.e. rolling a 4 could give you two 2nd level spells back). This maybe too punishing though but it keep you from healing the damage back and makes the use more tactical. I also understand tactics is not a barbarian strong suit :).

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      Reducing max health is definitely another possible solution. I ended up not going with it due to reducing maximum health being a somewhat rare mechanic that has tripped my players up in the past.

      I think there are a lot of good ways you could fix that ability and yours seems like one of them =)

  2. Thedude

    The 40 hp you could get from Goodberry, would take 10 actions to ingest all 10 berries. And your action is already booked with using Magic Reserves ability. So give a slot or temp go to a party and possibly take 40(60) damage from doing it or eat a berry to regain 4hp.

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      You are correct in combat goodberry is very slow. However, the time when you’d conduct this maneuver would be between combats, when you have essentially unlimited actions.

  3. colin

    Love your rpg articles! Some about games more interesting than D&D perhaps?

    An article about how to fix D&D would also be interesting. Maybe in 3 or 4 parts.

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you like them =). I talk about DnD here because that’s my area of expertise and the system has enough mechanical complexity to be worth the deep dives. If another system draws my interest in the same way I will totally look into writing something about it.

      “Fixing” DnD is always an interesting topic. I totally agree that there is a lot of room to improve the system, but nailing them down in their totality and coming up with ways to fix them in the amount of detail I would find sufficient would be a huge undertaking, if I’d be able to do it all.

      I did actually just publish an article on nerdarchy.com about fixing 5e’s encounter system, so if you want to see my fix for one of the game’s major issues you can start there.

      • Colin

        I’m interested in “fixing it” because one of my friends likes it and is too lazy to learn another system. Won’t run anything else. If I want to play, I have to settle for D&D (I run other games myself).

        For encounters…I think 4th edition nailed the balance…you balance it around the encounter….you’re at “full power” every encounter. For 5e you’d probably have to tone down what “full power” is.

        But as someone who hates levels (zero to god is not an entertaining story…how about competent to slightly more competent?)….I find most of the system would need a drastic rework to be what I want. Especially since I also hate classes as well.

        D20 based dice results are also too swingy for my liking, and D&D teaches poor GMing which makes it worse (roll for that skill you’re trained in til you succeed, you can’t just auto pass something that makes perfect sense).

        Hitpoint mountain is ridiculous and drags out foregone conclusions. A single sword swing can’t kill a level 2 character, and the abstraction is both there and not…it’s ridiculous.

        I know I have lots of beefs, and I should obviously play something else…but I also like my friends and group so I’m not going to.

        • Ari Ashkenazi

          It’s tough when a group you like only plays a system you don’t.

          Here’s a link to my encounter system, it helped my brother enjoy the game a lot and he shares a lot of the issues you have DnD

          https://nerdarchy.com/5e-dd-alternative-encounter-system/

          As for unnecessary rolls, I believe that’s more of a GM issue than a system one. Part of GMing is knowing when to call for a roll rather than saying it is either impossible or accomplished without issue. Maybe speak to your GM about it?

          Hit points will always walk a weird divide between abstraction and simulation, unfortunately there’s not too much to be done about it in DnD.

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