The Elemental Evil Player's Companion is now available for free download on severalsites, and since the price is right, people interested in 5e should pick it up even if the Princes of the Apocalypse storyline isn't something you expect to use. This 25-page PDF, by Sasquatch Game Studios and WotC, offers new races, spells, and one lonely feat, all focused on the Aristotelian elements. It's also the first official player-directed content expansion. Which brings me to analysis and review, because in this blog I cover design, not gaming news.
Four Races and a Feat
The aarakocra, genasi of the main four subraces, goliaths, and svirfneblin are detailed here. On aarakocra, there's really only one important note:
Dungeon Master General's Warning: Giving a PC a Flight speed at first level is extremely hazardous to encounter design.
Between flight and an overwhelming racial propensity toward crippling claustrophobia, aarakocra make pretty dubious adventurers. I appreciate that the text goes out of its way to give them two motivations to answer the call to adventure that are specific to D&D canon - the Wind Dukes of Aqaa and Ogrémoch - but it does mean that DMs of any other campaign storylines need to be prepared to provide something for any aarakocra PCs they wish to allow.
Anyway, flight is a big deal; talons dealing 1d4 damage, not so much. They don't have any other significant racial abilities.
Genasi are pretty straightforward; their only significant racial stat outside of the four subraces is their +2 Constitution. Each subrace gets one ability score point, a few thematically appropriate minor abilities (though fire and water genasi really stretch the definition of minor here), and a few spell-like abilities that develop as they advance, comparable to the tiefling racial abilities. It's interesting that Air and Earth don't receive a cantrip or a damage resistance. I'm more surprised, though, that an ability called Merge With Stone grants pass without trace, not meld into stone. The latter is a third-level spell and a bit much for a racial ability, but "merge with stone" doesn't have that much in common with the spell description of pass without trace.
It also looks to me like Fire genasi have it a lot better than Water genasi. The former gain an attack cantrip that also provides light, burning hands, resistance to fire damage, and darkvision - straightforward, easy to use abilities that will come up often. The latter gain acid resistance (nice, but not as common as fire), amphibious ("can breathe water" is mostly less useful than Air genasi's "don't need to breathe while not incapacitated"), a swim speed that is admittedly quite nice, the shape water cantrip (thaumaturgy, but only for affecting water), and create or destroy water, which to my surprise doesn't have any listed applications against water elementals. The Water genasi's abilities might be useful, with a clever player, but it's definitely not for everyone.
Goliaths, first introduced in 3.5, return here - and I would really hope that no one playing a goliath in a game I ran did so using the attitudes described here, because I can only read it as an excuse for extremely dickish behavior. As soon as the goliath decides one party member isn't contributing enough to the group, they're out on their ear. A constant harping on competitiveness and one-upsmanship sounds miserable to me. Just... play them as half-giants and have done with it.
On the mechanical side, they're pretty cool. Free Athletics proficiency is great. Stone's Endurance offers a race-specific reaction to shrug off some damage once per short or long rest, based on the Battle Master fighter's Parry mechanic. If it has a downside, it's that it doesn't scale with level to keep up with sharply increasing damage values, so it's great for keeping you alive at low levels but barely relevant later on. I would probably consider changing it from 1d12 + Con bonus to 1d6 + Con bonus, 2d6+ at 5th level, 3d6+ at 11th level, and 4d6+ at 17th level.
Their other abilities, Powerful Build and Mountain Born, are flavorful but probably won't come up that much, which is fine. It's certainly less obnoxious than their 3.5 ability to count as one size larger for weapon-wielding and most other interactions where Large size is beneficial. Also, I am pretty sure this guy just... is a goliath, in real life.
Svirfneblin are pretty much fine mechanically and thematically. Not many races get this strong of a nudge toward proficiency in Stealth, and it would be pretty cool to wear heavy armor and use their stealth ability to negate disadvantage. Superior darkvision is also pretty nice. The interesting thing, though, is that we have the first official feat with a race and subrace prerequisite.
Svirfneblin Magic demonstrates that race-locked feats are on the table as design options in WotC's view - interesting coming off of the Player's Handbook, where prerequisites of any kind are very rare. The benefits of this feat, compared to the Magic Initiate feat in the PH, are shockingly good. Nondetection - that's a third-level spell, folks - at will, targeting yourself, without components. It's a form of personal immunity to divination, though a decent number of divinations target the caster rather than the one they hope to perceive. On top of that, three spells - one first-level, two second-level - per long rest.
Stylistically, I love the idea of handing out advanced racial abilities and secrets. I would absolutely expand this concept to each race and subrace, and rework the themes and story of each race and subrace to suit what I had given them.
I think just about any 5e fan would be surprised to see that there are no general feats customized to the Princes of the Apocalypse storyline, but the real surprise is that there are no subclasses focused on elemental power - no elemental sorcerous bloodline, no warlock pact with the Elemental Evils, no Druid Circle or Paladin Oath explicitly opposed to them.
With that in mind, there are a lot of new spells, and those offer much of the same theme. The spell list explicitly recommends treating some of the new Druid spells as granted by their home terrain, presumably even for the Circle of the Moon. The note that makes me happy, though, is:
"Your DM determines whether these spells are available at character creation, whether they are discovered in a treasure trove, or whether you stumble upon them in an ancient library or other storehouse of magical knowledge."
I appreciate any reminder that just because it's published, that doesn't mean it's automatically fair game, even for classes that normally gain access to all spells of their list. If it gets more DMs to think about handing out spell knowledge as treasure, even to classes that are not wizards, I'll be all the happier. Without further ado...
Let's start with the cantrips, because there are a whole pile of new ones. There are new iterations on thaumaturgy/prestidigitation/druidcraft: one for each element. In general, they're effects I would allow to the pre-existing minor magical trick spells, and I'm surprised that all of the genasi subraces don't get their element's minor-trick spell. I was really happy that clerics, druids, and arcane casters all had their own cantrip for minor magic, but these four just feel like bulking up the list if you're not going to hand them out more creatively.
Magic stone is a weird case, and works a lot like shillelagh. It grants the caster's spellcasting ability score bonus to damage, and it doesn't inherently scale - like shillelagh, it's enchanting items, and you use the Attack action to use those items, so it either scales because you give the stones to a fighter buddy, or doesn't because Druids never receive the Extra Attack ability. The result is that this spell goes from being your best ranged cantrip from first through fourth level to being about-as-good as others at 5th (because a decent flat add is better than even a pretty big die value), and finally drops into near-uselessness at 11th.
Frostbite kind of supersedes vicious mockery, though it isn't open to bards. It has a better die value, d6 rather than d4, and the same secondary effect, except that frostbite specifies a weapon attack roll, while vicious mockery just specifies an attack roll. So I guess vicious mockery is still a tiny bit better for hindering spellcasters, if they need to make a spell attack before the end of their next turn?
Thunderclap, on the other hand, is potentially the highest damage-dealing cantrip yet, as it affects all creatures within 5 feet of the caster. Of course, optimal use of this cantrip may not be a great idea... anyway, I like the risk/reward that this has going on.
Create bonfire is one among many, many spells in the EEPC that changes terrain for a duration - in this case, the terrain deals 1d8 fire damage (scaling as normal for a cantrip) to anyone who steps in that square. The fact that it allows a saving throw is one of the big differences between this and, say, cloud of daggers.
I can probably get away with grouping the non-cantrip spells into just a few categories:
direct damage (Aganazzar's scorcher, Snilloc's snowball swarm, Melf's minute meteors - seriously, they raided Pages from the Mages and Tome of Magic like you wouldn't believe)
terrain change or lasting area damage (storm sphere, watery sphere, wall of water)
defensive buffs (primordial ward, investiture of all kinds of shit, absorb elements)
utility effects (skywrite - don't bother with anything but the ritual version, control winds, warding wind, pyrotechnics)
a very short spells I can't cover with those descriptions, but probably not more than five (flame arrow, elemental bane, beast bond, arguably earthbind)
The terrain-changing spells are especially complicated, as many of them define damaging or otherwise bad-for-you zones and deal damage every round. Naturally, they're all Concentration-based, and this is why we even have that rules concept. The big exception to that is bones of the earth, which has a duration of Instantaneous, but that means the changed terrain stays until destroyed.
Most of these spells are fine, and essentially predictable if you're familiar with earlier editions of D&D. There's nothing wrong with updating your titanic content library to the new edition, don't get me wrong. I do want to say a few stern words about the four investiture spells (flame, ice, stone, and wind).
Flame is one of the most egregious.
Immunity to a common damage type, resistance to its opposite. So about how I think immunities in player hands are always the wrong idea...
1d10 damage aura. Oddly, creatures are not punished for starting their turn next to you, only the first time they approach and when they end their turn next to you. This reduces the ability to use the effect aggressively.
Gain a new at-will AoE. It's like Aganazzar's scorcher, but deals 1d8 more damage in a line half as long. The shorter range is a big deal, but this is still an absolutely amazing ability.
Ice is almost as bad.
Immunity to a common damage type, and resistance to its opposite. See above.
Ignore difficult terrain for ice or snow
Aura of difficult terrain
Gain a new at-will AoE. It's a cone of cold with lower damage and shorter range, though 4d6 is very respectable as an at-will - consider that when you first cast this at 11th level, your cantrips have just stepped up to three dice, usually against a single target.
Stone is okay - sixth level seems about right for this.
Stoneskin, but self-only and with no material component. Since the benefit of stoneskin always involves rolling a Constitution saving throw if you cast it on yourself, this one is a little iffy.
Gain a new at-will AoE. It's a knockdown.
Move through earth and stone as if you are incorporeal, more or less.
Wind is the probably weakest in what I think of as the "average" combat situation.
Impose disadvantage on ranged attacks against you
Gain a flight speed of 60 feet. Since fly is a third-level spell that grants the same speed and likewise requires Concentration over the same duration (but isn't self-only), it becomes particularly clear that the extra three spell levels are the price of the investiture's other two effects. Also, it lays some groundwork for top-end spells that collect a variety of lower-order Concentration effects.
Gain a new at-will AoE that deals damage in a 15' cube and pushes Large or smaller targets 10 feet on a failed save. There isn't that much short-distance forced movement lying around, so this is mighty handy.
My stern words are really all aimed at Flame and Ice, because in a campaign hanging on Elemental Evil, there are going to be whole encounters where the designer has failed to account for a player immunity, and that player (druid, sorcerer, warlock, or wizard - why isn't there even a single word of support for the cleric?) single-handedly mops up the encounter... but agonizingly slowly, because it takes a lot of tedium to kill a fire elemental with ray of frost or whatever. If you don't proactively stop people from ruining their own fun and the fun of everyone around them, a huge percentage of players choose the boring but risk-reducing way to play. Primordial ward is a solitary exception, because its very short duration means it's more like a very strong reaction than an immunity.
One of the notable through-lines of elemental creatures and magic in 5e is that fire, ice, acid, thunder, and lightning are relatively easy to resist, and immunities are readily available to creatures and intermittently available to players. Then there's earth. Boulders, rocks, The Chompers - these are all earth-based damage that is explicitly magical. Almost nothing has resistance against these (because it's all magical), and even fewer things have immunity - simple immunity to bludgeoning damage would be a disaster. I don't really understand why they didn't suck it up and make Earth a damage type so that they could hand out resistances and immunities in a sane way, rather than making fire and ice inherently inferior damage flavors because so many things are immune (e.g., fiends). Maybe it was a single, lonely line of simulationist thinking in this otherwise cheerfully gamist system?
Taken together, the Elemental Evil Player's Companion is a perfectly good collection of new races and spells (and one feat). I don't know that anything in here really stands apart from the general run of third-party content, aside from a heavy emphasis on adapting content from previous editions into 5e. The spells do flesh out some generally thin areas of spellcasting in the Player's Handbook spell list, with a lot more ways to manipulate terrain and a lot more configurations of area-effect damage. The other major shortcoming - the all-too-short list of rituals - isn't really helped here, because there's just the one.
Probably the best use of this PDF, as a DM, is to share the races with the players (this step is optional), and hold back the spell list, giving you new spells you can surprise players with when they capture a wizard's spellbook or copy the inscription off of the wall of a shrine of elemental evil. Is there something perverse about telling you to hold back the majority of a document actually entitled Player's Companion? Yeah, probably, but discovering new secrets is fun, and making up cool things to discover is the task the adventure's writers and the DM collaborate to accomplish, so use all content wisely.