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D&D 5e Playtest: Waterborne Adventures

Okay, I'm a month late to the game on this one, but I've only now found time to write about the most recent release from Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures. It's a rules module for things that like water, but prefer to stay above it rather than in it. In particular, it offers one race, one fighting style, one Rogue Archetype, and one Sorcerous Origin.

Minotaurs (Krynn)

I, for one, was surprised to see support for Krynn in a document not otherwise dedicated to the setting, but... sure! I like PC-playable minotaur(en) as much as anyone, and there's even a sidebar suggesting what to change if you like minotaurs but not Dragonlance's sea-faring, imperialist version.

Damn, the racial write-up here describes some serious assholes. Unless the whole party is made up of minotaurs, you must play an outlier or rebel to avoid being a complete jerk to the other PCs. Domineering, might-makes-right behavior does not make for a fun tabletop experience, unless everything in the game is dedicated to slapping that character down. If everyone's playing a rebel, why didn't you just write the whole thing from the rebel perspective in the first place?

Well, okay, there are some redeeming virtues. They're proud warrior race guys, and because I like my readers I am not linking to TV Tropes. So maybe they'll be tolerable for other party members, but suuuuper douchebags to every NPC you meet? I would like to cordially invite all of my players, in perpetuity, to steer clear of this. Having said that, the campaign set in the minotaur homelands would be cool - much like the sequences in ST: TNG and DS9 that immerse the viewer in Klingon culture are incredibly compelling.

On the mechanical side, they are suited to any and every kind of Strength-based class. If you're not going to have at least a decent Strength, don't be a minotaur, because three of your racial abilities are Strength-based:

And three racial abilities that are not:
Overall, my takeaway is that they're incredibly combat-focused, in a way that favors some classes and all but locks them out of others - it's generally thematically appropriate, but I don't think other races feel like they're giving up on so many of their racial abilities to choose any given class.

There's more, though: Mearls experiments with a race-specific Bond table, "in addition to or in place of." I am 100% in favor of this, and I should write Bond tables like this one for every race or subrace in my setting. It does such a good job of telling players who the minotaurs are and showing them some game-friendly and/or conflict-prone character concepts. This is, hands down, the best thing in the whole document.

Fighting Style: Mariner

Okay, so we're looking at +1 AC under certain armor restrictions (that sound you hear is a warning klaxon, be alarmed), plus some other stuff that would normally require a Strength (Athletics) check and increased movement cost. The sidebar suggests that they know about this and see it as being fine, but I'm... less sure of that.

The reason there's a klaxon above is that whenever you get into handing out bonuses for a once-in-a-career decision (armor type and general weapon/shield combination is like that for most characters), you may be admitting that a build is turning out to be underpowered. In this case, there's room for Strength-based warriors (here a catchall term for characters that get a Fighting Style ability), but this caters to Dex-based warriors. It pays them for wearing light or medium armor, which they had to do anyway (lacking the Strength to ignore movement penalties in heavy armor) and preferred to do anyway (because light armor + maxed-out Dex is almost as good as heavy armor). It further lets them off the hook for making two of the main movement-based Strength (Athletics) checks, by simply giving them a Climb and Swim speed. Congratulations, Dex warriors, you can now afford to dump even more Strength.

The overlap with the Defense style should really be a warning sign in itself. If you're the kind of person this is for, you get something explicitly better than the Player's Handbook offered. Unless "the kind of person this is for" is an under-served category, it's simple power creep, and you shouldn't do that. Now, maybe WotC does feel that Dex warriors are an under-served category; if you start digging into the damage output of the Great Weapon Master, there might even be some basis there. I still don't think this is a great way to do it.

Separately, it makes me wish that all weapon-wielding classes had access to one or more Fighting Styles, because why should fighters, paladins, and rangers have all the fun? I wonder if this concept wouldn't therefore be better packaged as a feat.

Roguish Archetype: Swashbuckler

Like most Roguish Archetypes - and Lord knows I've written my share of them - the Swashbuckler offers five abilities, including two at 3rd level:
On the whole, the Swashbuckler is a solid Roguish Archetype for rogues who want to trade the Thief's miscellaneous sleeve-borne tricks or the Assassin's hard-to-set-up murderfacing for some additional raw combat power and a nasty bit of battlefield control. I think Toujours l'Audace and Panache may need a small amount of refinement, and I'm a little skeptical about trading in so many non-combat abilities for combat abilities - DMs need to remember to make that tradeoff matter. Still, it's mostly good.

Sorcerous Origin: Storm

This is more or less a ship's mage concept. I'm definitely glad they chose the sorcerer here, as it was woefully lacking in options in the Player's Handbook. I heard you like lightning, because this Origin put lightning on your thunder so you can storm while you storm.
On the whole, I think the Storm Sorcerer has quite a leg up on the Draconic Sorcerer. Wind Soul compares very favorably to Dragon Wings, albeit four levels later; Storm's Fury compares... probably favorably to Draconic Presence (no sorcery point cost seals the deal); Heart of the Storm definitely kicks out more raw damage than Elemental Affinity and gets two energy resistances all day, rather than one for an hour per sorcery point; Draconic Resilience is an open question against the dynamic duo of Stormborn and Tempestuous Magic. Thematically, though, the storm sorcerer is as pure of a blaster concept as you could hope to find. I don't play a lot of blasters (I don't play a lot of PCs, while we're on the subject), but I'd give this one a shot.


I love Unearthed Arcana, and I take immense pleasure in getting to read and pick apart (not cruelly, I hope, just analytically) the still-in-playtesting content. Balancing new content after the release of the main rulebooks has been a problem area for every game that has ever done it. One of three things seems to occur: the designers are now more confident in the design space and get more ambitious with the word "fair," or the time and money for playtesting dries up, or the work of writing the splatbook gets farmed out to someone who doesn't know the system as well as the original developers. In this case, the latter is obviously untrue, and Unearthed Arcana is evidence that they're trying to avoid the second.

Now that I've put forward my arguments on Waterborne Adventures, WotC has a survey, so you can let them know whether or not I was persuasive. (Or whatever you care to tell them.)

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