Three adventurers in a fantasy library from the book. Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos

Last time, I covered the new ancestries shown off in the newest Unearthed Arcana for “One D&D.” This week, I wrap up my three-part coverage on the document by going over changes made to backgrounds and feats.

Backgrounds

Ability Scores. When you determine your character’s ability scores, choose two of them, and increase one by 2 and the other one by 1. Alternatively, choose three ability scores, and increase each of them by 1.

Skill Proficiencies. Choose two Skills. Your character gains Proficiency in them.

Tool Proficiency. Choose one tool. Your character gains Tool Proficiency with it.

Language. Choose one language from the Standard Languages and Rare Languages tables. Your character knows that language.

Feat. Choose one 1st-level Feat. Your character gains that Feat.

Equipment. Your character gains 50 GP to spend on starting equipment. The character keeps any unspent GP as spare coin.

I love the changes that have been made to backgrounds in this UA. In D&D 5E, backgrounds are, for the most part, near-forgettable features that boil down to a couple of skill and language proficiencies. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as the Ravnica backgrounds that grant additional spells, but all those backgrounds do is push players into picking them for the vastly improved power or force GMs to ban them to keep things balanced.

Now, all backgrounds pack a significant punch and allow players to seamlessly mesh the mechanics and flavor of their characters. First, the new rules move attribute points away from ancestries and into your background. This makes a lot of sense to me, as what you’ve spent your life doing should have a bigger impact on your capabilities than who your parents were. This also neatly sidesteps any racist implications made by declaring that all members of a certain ancestry are inherently one way or another.*

The second major change is attaching a free feat to every background. This is a great way to customize your character and, in theory, should make characters more distinct from one another. I do have some problems with the feats themselves, but their inclusion in backgrounds is not one of them. Overall, these changes are great, and I hope to see them make it into the next edition in their entirety.

Feats

Next, let’s take a look at feats. This list is a combination of new and old feats that are made available at 1st level.

Alert

Initiative Proficiency. When you roll Initiative, you can add your Proficiency Bonus to the roll.

Initiative Swap. Immediately after you roll Initiative, you can swap your Initiative with the Initiative of one willing ally in the same combat. You can’t make this swap if you or the ally is Incapacitated.

This is a reworked version of the existing Alert feat, and it’s pretty good. Instead of a flat +5 to initiative, this feat scales with proficiency. While this is a decrease in power, this type of scaling is more in-line with current D&D design. As for the rest of the feat, immunity to surprise and better defense against unseen opponents is replaced by the ability to swap your initiative with someone else. Going at the right time during a fight is very important, and increased flexibility in the party’s initiative order is always nice. It’s hard to compare this to the old Alert as they are so different. If your GM enjoys trying to surprise the party, this is a weaker feat. If they don’t, it’s a bit stronger. Either way, I’m happy with this newly designed Alert.

Crafter

Tool Proficiency. You gain Tool Proficiency with three different Artisan’s Tools of your choice.

Discount. Whenever you buy a nonmagical item, you receive a 20 percent discount on it.

Faster Crafting. When you craft an item using a tool with which you have Tool Proficiency, the required crafting time is reduced by 20 percent.

The first totally new feat on the list, and it is a dud. Tool proficiencies are some of the weakest features you can receive in 5E, and unless I see a major tools overhaul in this new edition, I will assume that remains true. A reduction in item prices and crafting time is slightly better, especially if you can stack the bonuses with other options like the artificer’s Magic Item Adept. I would be happy to have an NPC friend with this feat, but as a character, it would never be a strong choice.

Healer

Battle Medic. If you have a Healer’s Kit, you can expend one use of it and tend to a creature within 5 feet of you as an Action. That creature can expend one of its Hit Dice, and you then roll that die. The creature regains a number of Hit Points equal to the roll plus your Proficiency Bonus.

Healing Rerolls. Whenever you roll a die to determine the number of Hit Points you restore with a spell or with this feat’s Battle Medic benefit, you can reroll the die if it rolls a 1, and you must use the new roll.

This version of the Healer feat is a general downgrade when it comes to single-use healing, but it can result in more hit points being restored over time if you’re willing to burn the kit charges and hit dice. If your party doesn’t gain features back on short rests, Battle Medic can be used to mimic a short rest without taking an hour. Healing Rerolls is a small boost to healing that will feel nice to have, even if it doesn’t add that much total healing.

Lucky

Luck Points. You have a number of Luck Points equal to your Proficiency Bonus. You can spend the points on the benefits below, and you regain your expended Luck Points when you finish a Long Rest.

Advantage. Immediately after you roll a d20 for a d20 Test, you can spend 1 Luck Point to give yourself Advantage on the roll.

Disadvantage. When a creature rolls a d20 for an attack roll against you, you can spend 1 Luck Point to impose Disadvantage on that roll.

I’ve never been in the camp that considered the current Lucky feat overpowered, but I am glad to see this new, weaker version. That’s because alongside this power loss is a massive wording cleanup. Instead of the existing Lucky’s awkward pseudo-advantage/disadvantage wording, we get the straightforward rules of this UA.

What makes this version weaker is that now Lucky cannot be used alongside existing advantage or disadvantage to give the character the best-of-three choice. Under 5E rules, a character with Lucky could close their eyes, granting themselves disadvantage, use a point of Lucky, and pick the best of the resulting 3d20, benefiting from the self-inflicted blindness. I don’t consider this a huge issue, as Lucky only affects up to three rolls per rest, but removing it is good for the game.

Magic Initiate

Repeatable: Yes, but you must choose a different Spell list each time.

Two Cantrips. You learn two cantrips of your choice from the Spell list.

1st-Level Spell. Choose one 1st-level Spell from the Spell list. You always have that Spell prepared. You can cast it once without a Spell Slot, and you regain the ability to cast it in that way when you finish a Long Rest. You can also cast the Spell using any Spell Slots you have.

Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these Spells (choose when you select this Feat). Whenever you gain a new level, you can
replace one of the Spells you chose for this Feat with a different Spell of the same level from the chosen Spell list.

Spellcasting is good in D&D, and it turns out the feat that grants spellcasting is very good as well. There are a lot of spells to pick from when selecting this feat, but the major standouts are Shield, Silvery Barbs, and Find Familiar. For martial builds, starting off with an owl companion is incredibly good, as it can hand out help actions. Meanwhile, any spellcaster who doesn’t already have Shield or Silvery Barbs would love to add those spells to their list.

Compared to the existing version, this Magic Initiate feat is a straight upgrade. The spell you select can be cast once for free and again with spell slots, swapped out when you level, and you get to choose the casting attribute. This is my pick for strongest feat, and it’s not particularly close.

Musician

Instrument Training. You gain Tool Proficiency with three Musical Instruments of your choice.

Inspiring Song. As you finish a Short Rest or a Long Rest, you can play a song on a Musical Instrument with which you have Tool Proficiency and give Inspiration to allies who hear the song. The number of allies you can affect in this way equals your Proficiency Bonus.

Now back to bad feats. Musician is another option that grants you tool proficiencies, specifically musical instruments, which might be the most useless tools available. Inspiring Song is the best part of this feat, and its power is middling. One instance of advantage per party member per rest is not worth a feat when there are much stronger options on offer.

Savage Attacker

When you take the Attack Action and hit a target with a Weapon as part of that Action, you can roll the Weapon’s damage dice twice and use either roll against the target. You can use this benefit only once per turn.

This feat is unchanged from its existing form, and it continues to be bad. Rerolling one to two dice once per turn is a minimal damage boost, and I’m surprised to see this underpowered feat made it to this UA unchanged.

Skilled

Repeatable: Yes

Choose three Skills in which you lack Proficiency. You gain Proficiency in those Skills.

This feat is terrible in 5E, and it’s terrible here. Skill proficiencies are decent, but the opportunity cost of a feat is simply not worth it. This feat is saved from the last-place spot by Crafter, but it’s still very bad.

Tavern Brawler

Enhanced Unarmed Strike. When you hit with your Unarmed Strike and deal damage, you can deal Bludgeoning Damage equal to 1d4 + your Strength modifier, instead of the normal damage of an Unarmed Strike.

Damage Rerolls. Whenever you roll a damage die for your Unarmed Strike, you can reroll the die if it rolls a 1, and you must use the new roll.

Shove. When you hit a creature with an Unarmed Strike as part of the Attack Action on your turn, you can deal damage to the target and also push it 5 feet away. You can use this benefit only once per turn.

Furniture as Weapons. You can wield furniture as a Weapon, using the rules of the Greatclub for Small or Medium furniture and the rules of the Club for Tiny furniture.

Tavern Brawler loses the attribute bump, bonus-action grapple, and improvised weapons in favor of unarmed-damage rerolls, a built-in shove, and the ability to turn furniture into clubs. Of these three, the last is the most interesting, as it might mean the removal of improvised weapons as their own classification. As for power level, I’d say this is slightly better than the current Tavern Brawler but still not a great feat.

Tough

Your Hit Point Maximum increases by an amount equal to twice your character level when you gain this Feat. Whenever you gain a level thereafter, your Hit Point Maximum increases by an additional 2 Hit Points.

There isn’t much to say about Tough; it remains unchanged and continues to be a decent, if unexciting, feat.

My feelings on the new feat system are much more mixed, unfortunately. The first issue revolves around the new minimum level each feat can be obtained at. The feats listed above are all 1st-level feats, and the glaring exclusion of key feats like Crossbow Expert and Polearm Master is where my trepidation comes from.

On the one hand, this is an elegant way to limit the power of feats and the ancestries that get them. Variant human and custom lineage have reigned as the strongest ancestries in 5E due to the head start they got on acquiring key feats. Now that they are limited to 1st-level feats, that power is greatly diminished and allows other ancestries to shine.*

The problem is that the builds most impacted by these changes are martial builds. Almost all characters looking to optimize weapon damage made use of two feats at a minimum: Polearm Master and Great Weapon Master for melee, with Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter for ranged. Now, those builds need to wait some number of levels* before acquiring those key features.

In comparison, casters, while still wanting to pick up some important feats like Warcaster, don’t need those feats the same way martials do. Unless some major changes we haven’t seen yet are made to other systems, these leveled feats are a big hit to builds that need the most help, especially at lower levels.

As for the feats themselves, there are also some major balance issues. Alert, Lucky, and Magic Initiate all significantly outpace the other options, forcing players to once again choose between effectiveness and flavor. Magic Initiate in particular stands out, as the chance to start the game with spells like Shield, Silvery Barbs, or Find Familiar is so good that it’ll become a must-pick option for most builds.

On the whole, I like more about this portion of the UA than I dislike, but what issues I do have are quite large. I’m interested to see how the new edition’s feat system develops, and I hope it manages to assuage my worries.

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