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Unearthed Arcana: Character Origins (One D&D Play Test)

This week’s Big News for Gamers is that Wizards of the Coast is releasing a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2024. That isn’t an entirely accurate statement, as the design team is adamant that this is less of a “new edition” and more of a refinement, but even in this first release there are a few elements that shake D&D to its core. Think 3rd Edition to 3.5, or 3.5 SRD to Pathfinder. The core mechanics and flavor of the game will be the same, but some there will be some mild changes to the overall design. Players who don’t have the whole system memorized may not even notice the changes any more than they would note some house rules or home-brew content, even though I’m sure some hardcore nerds will throw tantrums all over the Order of the Stick forums.

Since I’ve somehow worked myself into a position where I am a Professional Dungeon Master, I have the delightful task of unpacking all of the changes, both because I need to be ready to explain them to my clients and because… well… if you can call yourself a Professional Dungeon Master, why not enjoy the task fully and dig into the game?

This will be a fast overview, based in large part on tweets I made while reading through the Character Origins play test document last night. I’ll dig into each of the sections more deeply over the next couple weeks and will likely make some YouTube videos about them as well. 

It’s worth noting that I am a very story focused DM. I always treat the rules as vague guidelines with player engagement being Rule Zero. I also primarily DM these days, as my friend group was disrupted by the double punch of COVID Lockdowns and moving to a new state and I have yet to find more than a couple reliable players near my new home.

This document is all about Character Origins, which means it is focused on Race and Background. The opening paragraphs assume that you have already chosen a Class, though I imagine that Classes will also be revised at some point in the next year and a half. I’m still not a fan of D&D placing Class as the first step of character building. It’s a very meta-heavy design choice, which makes players more likely to play by to their role in the party dynamic. This reached its height in 4e with the Controller / Defender / Leader / or Striker dynamic. Sure, there are benefits to this from a party dynamic perspective and it might help some players determine how to play their character, but I always prefer backstory and character development over “purpose”. I don’t hate 4e (in fact, I vastly prefer the At Will / Encounter / Daily spell categories to Spell Slots and Cantrips), but my playgroup never adopted it and what I read of it often felt more like a video game or tabletop tactical simulator than a roleplaying game. 

Creature Type has made a comeback, after fading into the background for 5e. Perhaps this was re-introduced over time? I haven’t read most of the splat books for 5e. Go ahead and @ me on Twitter if you know of something that proves me wrong on this point, or any other comparison between editions. Bringing Creature Types back is probably a good idea, though the division of types is tricky. I’m specifically not sold on Ooze being it’s own type or Giants being separate from Humanoid. 

Inspiration also seems to be getting a major overhaul. I don’t remember losing Inspiration on a Long Rest before, and I don’t believe you could pass inspiration to another player if your box is already checked before. I’ll need to go back to my 5e Handbook and check that, but I feel like it’s borrowed from Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell’s work on Cypher System. 

Humans now get inspiration after a long rest, which is weird when compared with what we had before, but makes sense. Most fantasy settings portray Humans as bland, but determined to overcome their mediocrity with effort. I like this approach and think that giving Human players an opportunity to shine once per day might also inspire players to role play for Inspiration more. Of course, the role play aspect of Inspiration is being generally deemphasized, as players automatically get it from rolling a nat20. 

I think my biggest concern is that I’ve generally used Inspiration as a motivator to do good role play, rather than as a mechanic that players have a right to receive. An, honestly, I don’t use it terribly much anymore since I’ve made it the expectation for my players to do good role play by either rewarding good role play with Advantage within a scene or quietly reducing the DC for a task if players role play a fun / funny / madcap plan.   Further integrating Inspiration into the game mechanics could be a good thing, but feels a bit like Wizards is trying to nudge Rules Lawyer gaming groups into role playing more. That’s not a bad thing, the change probably won’t affect me much. 

I like the definitions of Arcane, Divine, and Primal spells. In my own fantasy writing I make a lot of use of Primal magic, with Divine and Arcane being basically subsets of it, so it speaks to my taste in fantasy to have the three kinds of magic delineated. 

I like the division of spells into Arcane, Divine, and Primal a lot better than the schools of magic or the class spell list. “More to come later,” we are told, but as of now we just have three spell categories. The Divine and Primal Spell Lists both need be expanded. I haven’t counted healing / damage control spells, compared damagehealing output, or thought much about the general coolness of the spells, but purely by number Arcane has way more options at first level. I’ve seen some concern among friends and on Twitter that breaking spells into these categories waters down class distinctions. Two thoughts on that:

First: I don’t much care about class distinctions from a mechanical perspective. Nope. If you are playing a Cleric who draws on divine power to heal but wants to occasionally use a common arcane enchantment to illuminate a dark room, I’m all for that if there is a story / role play / setting reason why a Cleric would have access to Arcane spells. The weight should rest on the Class description and features to provide flavorful options and grant access to certain spells at certian times. 

Second, but related: This is just the spell list by power source. It’s like listing which of your appliances need to be plugged in, which use batteries, and which are clockwork. Warlocks and Wizards should be granted different spells at different times, but they’re both tapping into Arcane powers they don’t fully understand (even if they think they do). There should be flavor in which spells they get, but I’m perfectly fine with a Wizard creating an arcane mark which grants them access to Arms of Hadar. The point of even dividing the spells into lists at all is that something like an anti-magic field should block all Arcane spells, while leaving a Primal Druid or Divine Cleric unaffected. 

Alright, this is supposed to be an overview. Back to skimming. 

Tremorsense is back and Dwarves have it! Nice. 

Mixed-heritage characters are fully supported, but currently you’ll pick ONE of your Racial backgrounds to provide game mechanics and then mix/match fluff. It simplifies, but I can already see MANY people house-ruling on how you can pick and choose traits, just like Gestalt Multiclassing was very popular among a certain kind of player in previous editions. 

Going along with that, there seem to have been some retcons to Dragonborn and Tiefling Races. Perhaps I’m misremembering, but both of them seem to have a more magical, proud backstory now than I recall from before. I might be wrong, but either way I like the lore as written in this revision. 


I’m going to need to dig into this. I’ll give some quick comments, but I think they will need their own post. In brief,  I like the role play elements, but don’t know if all of them getting Angelic Flight will survive testing. I’m also concerned about the Celestial Legacy feature. I like it, but the requirement to use a spell slot, but track whether it was for your legacy spell separately, feels like a lot of bookkeeping. (Did I mention that I prefer At Will / Encounter / Daily over Spell Slots?) I’m not yet seeing any guidance on this spell casting ability to use. That probably needs to be specified so minmaxers don’t use Ardlings as a path to breaking the system.

Given their history, I feel like High Elves should pull from the Primal Spell List, instead of Arcane… but I’m also biased towards wanting more Primal magic.

Gnomes get advantage on THREE saving throws. Wow. I don’t dislike it, but I can see that getting Nerfed before the final release. 

Now, one of the few things I really feel needs changing: Rock Gnomes having the ability to imbue a device as a Racial trait is… huge. I like it from a storytelling perspective, but it seems odd and ripe for minmax arguments about other Gnomes being worthless. Also, the explanation of how to invest prestidigitation in a device really breaks up the flow of the racial traits table. Better to move that to ALL gnomes, like Dragonborn and their breath weapon, then give the Rock Gnomes something different. Perhaps have the different Gnome heritages have different saving throws?

I love Halflings and I feel that they need a little more in this update. I guess that, technically, all the 5e stuff is still there… which makes me feeling that Dragonborn are barely changed even stranger, because they have a long section in the play test material and Halflings barely have a column. 

Ok. Something I do love: Orcs. Not half-orcs. ORCS. The features of the Orc racial background are good, but not overpowered, and the simple fact that you can play an actual Orc and not just a half-breed gives such legitimacy to the race as a whole. 

Removing Half-Elf and Half-Orc is a great decision. If you want to role play a complex history of forbidden love or vile abuse, you still can. As a default, however, you are playing a proud member of a culture with a long history of its own. You are an ORC or an ELF.  This is not to delegitimize any official or fan-made tales of brave strongholds of half-orcs defending themselves against oppression or proud clans of half-elves running a trade empire. I’m just thrilled that people can officially play ACTUAL ORCS. 

I really like adding ability score changes to Backgrounds.

“Select a premade Background from the ‘Sample Backgrounds’ section and then customize it with the rules in the ‘Build Your Background’ section” was clearly written more to give full clarity than to flow well. I imagine this part will be re-phrased eventually. 

I like adding ability score changes to Backgrounds. It reflects the growth which backgrounds can provide, as well as making the statement that race isn’t the only thing that defines characters’ traits. Personal effort and history can influence them as well. Nice.

The backwards compatibility rules for Backgrounds are also solid and easy to follow: Either use the new Race and Backgrounds system, or use ALL of the old material. Both are acceptable and should create characters of comparable ability. 

Charlatans being fluent in Infernal is one of those hilarious and perfect things that I HOPE make it through to the final edition, but probably won’t. As an American who can only speak one language and vaguely understand a bit of three more, it always amazes me that nearly everyone in D&D speaks a minimum if three languages. I do wonder if there will be any mechanics for limiting the use of Rare Languages or reducing languages for low INT characters. Neither are essential, but can ad flavor to the game. 

Feats are back!

One of the biggest changes from 3.5 to 5e was that Feats went from THE THING YOU MUST HAVE to an optional rule. Of course, the class growth paths and options in vanilla 5e are basically feats, but with unique names and flavors instead of 3.5’s list of feats in each class advancement table. Now we are combining the two ideas fully, rather than having them awkwardly coexist as an option. We’ve gone from a universal set of keywords to class-by-class custom abilities, many of which are comparable to the old feats. 

Last night I went back and re-read the Feats section of my old 3.5 Player’s Handbook. The idea of repeatable Feats wasn’t there and neither was the idea of repeating information in the text. I’d forgotten how many Feats just told you to go look at another one and infer the difference. For example, Armor Proficiency (Medium) and (Heavy) basically just tell you to go read Armor Proficiency (Light). Good for saving ink, terrible for looking up information. 

I like some of these Level 1 Feats. Little tweaks like Savage Attacker basically giving Advantage on damage rolls. 

But this does make me wonder: Why not just say you have Advantage on Damage Rolls, rather than describing rolling the dice twice and picking a number? The one place where I can see the difference mattering is if a player wants to roll lower for some reason, but I don’t think that’s necessary to worry about, since any reasonable DM would allow a player to deal less damage for the sake of role play. And if you’re concerned about a DM not allowing this, just clarify the Advantage / Disadvantage rules to something like “DMs can grant or offer advantage. Players may choose to use their original role if desired.”

I also have mixed feelings on d20 Tests and their difficulty rules. Personally, I never set a DC lower than 10. If it’s easier than an “average” difficulty, players should role play their way through the situation. I just wonder if coining the term “d20 Test” was necessary, but I suppose it saves listing Ability Check, Attack Roll, and Saving Throw again and again. 

Some friends and I were discussing 20 ALWAYS succeeding over dinner. I think it’s ok, because if the action should be impossible then a roll just shouldn’t be permitted. They didn’t completely agree, for valid rules reasons, but I think this is a minor difference in philosophy. 

Here I have to admit that, while I primarily play D&D and do like a lot about it, I vastly prefer the Cypher System approach of “Talk the DM down in difficulty, then roll”. 1s and 20s are still special, but you’re not reaching for numbers as much as in D&D style tests. 

I need to go back and re-read the 5e Tool rules. The way they’re described in this playlets is basically how I’ve been using them… or I could just stay with this method, since it’s apparently where D&D is heading. 

After reading through the whole of today’s Unearthed Arcana release, I’m mostly happy with it. There are a few small things I would change and a few I like that probably won’t survive testing, but overall this feels like a better version of my favorite D&D Edition.