Roleplaying

Unearthed Arcana Review: Rune Knight Fighter

An armored soldier with magical runes.
Fighters have been a part of D&D since the very beginning. They embody the archetypal warrior wielding every kind of weapon one could imagine to properly bop monsters on the head. The 5th Edition fighter, while not being a top-tier class, sits comfortably in the middle of the pack and is the class I generally use as a comparison for the effectiveness of any martial build I create. However, given the class’s intentional simplicity, it can be difficult to come up with subclasses that feel unique. Wizards’ newest attempt is the Rune Knight, a big fan of giants who uses mystic runes to amplify their items and abilities. While I’m not necessarily convinced of the subclass’s strengths compared to the alternatives, I do like the flavor and creativity that went into this design, starting at level 3.

Level 3 – Bonus Proficiency

You gain proficiency with smith’s tools, and you learn to speak, read, and write Giant.

A minor feature, these proficiencies are more flavor than anything else. Tools are an often ignored part of the game that, even when used, have vague rules. Item creation, a common use for smith’s tools, is complicated enough that there are at least two conflicting rule sets that have been printed to govern it.* Since languages are another minor part of the game, with the Comprehend Languages spell being commonplace and all characters knowing at least two languages from level 1, most Rune Knights probably won’t get much use from this feature.

Level 3 – Rune Magic

You learn how to use runes to enhance your gear. When you gain this feature, you learn how to inscribe two runes of your choice on weapons, armor, or shields.

Whenever you finish a long rest, you can touch a number of objects equal to the number of runes you know, and you inscribe a different rune onto each of the objects. To be eligible, an object must be a weapon, a suit of armor, or a shield.

Your rune remains on an object until you finish a long rest, and an object can bear only one of your runes.

Each time you gain a level in this class, you can replace one rune you know with a different one.

Rune Options

Here are rune options for the Rune Magic feature. They are all magical effects. If a rune requires a saving throw, your Rune Magic save DC equals 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier.

This is the main feature of the subclass. Starting with two of these options, the Rune Knight can inscribe a rune onto a weapon, suit of armor, or shield, granting a passive bonus and an activated bonus once per short/long rest. Off the bat, there’s the problem of any rune-related saves being powered by the fighter’s intelligence. Requiring an otherwise lackluster stat like intelligence is a weakness found in previous magic-ish subclasses like Eldritch Knight or the rogue’s Arcane Trickster. It’s bad in those classes, and it continues to be bad here. As for the runes, let’s take a look at each option to see what they bring to the table.

Haug (Hill Rune). This rune’s magic bestows a resilience reminiscent of a hill giant. While wearing or carrying an object inscribed with this rune, you have advantage on saving throws against being poisoned, and you have resistance against poison damage.

In addition, you can invoke the rune as a bonus action, gaining resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage for 1 minute. Once you invoke the rune, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

While the passive on this rune is only situationally useful, the activated option more than makes up for it. As any barbarian can attest to, resistance to damage is great, and anything that gives that ability to a fighter is powerful indeed. This is my pick for the strongest option available.

Ild (Fire Rune). This rune’s magic channels the masterful craftsmanship of fire giant smiths. While wearing or carrying an object inscribed with this rune, your proficiency bonus is doubled for any ability check you make that uses your proficiency with a tool.

In addition, when you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can invoke the rune to summon fiery shackles: the target must succeed on a Strength saving throw or be restrained for 1 minute. While restrained by the shackles, the target takes 2d6 fire damage at the start of each of its turns. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, banishing the shackles on a success. Once you invoke the rune, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

Both parts of this rune are quite bad. Fighters don’t get many tool proficiencies, and as I mentioned earlier, tools are rarely brought up by many GMs. As for the active component, there are two main issues. The first is that it relies on monsters failing a saving throw based on strength, the worst save to target for most monsters. The second is that the number the monsters must beat is based off your intelligence. Together this means these shackles will rarely work, and even when they do, their effect is minor. This is easily the weakest option available.

Ise (Frost Rune). This rune’s magic evokes a frost giant’s stoic calm. While wearing or carrying an object inscribed with this rune, you have advantage on Wisdom (Animal Handling) checks and Charisma (Intimidation) checks.

In addition, you can invoke the rune as a bonus action to increase your Strength score by 2 for 10 minutes. This increase can cause your score to exceed 20, but not 30. Once you invoke the rune, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

Despite what some people may tell you, D&D is a game of specialization. Being okay at a bunch of skills usually means you end up watching while the people who are actually good at those skills make all the rolls. Fighters don’t focus on wisdom or charisma, and giving advantage to skills that use those stats is a middling bonus at best. Increasing strength, however, is a great feature. With a powerful effect that can last multiple encounters, this is my pick for second-best rune of the bunch.

Skye (Cloud Rune). This rune’s magic emulates the deceptiveness of a cloud giant. While wearing or carrying an object inscribed with this rune, you have advantage on Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) checks and Charisma (Deception) checks.

In addition, when you or a creature you can see within 30 feet of you is hit by an attack roll, you can use your reaction to invoke the rune and cause that attack to target a different creature within 30 feet of you (other than the attacker), using the same roll. This magic can transfer the attack regardless of the attack’s range. Once you invoke the rune, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

Though the passive is still not great for the reasons I stated earlier, a dexterity-based skill actually uses a stat the fighter might have invested in, and the skills improved are overall stronger than those of the frost rune.* As for the activation, it’s not bad. Theoretically it can redirect a huge strike from a friendly target to an enemy one, but given how monster hit points massively outscale their damage output, I think the feature’s main draw will be damage prevention, like a Shield spell you can cast on your party members. This rune is pretty good, making it my third choice after the initial two.

Stein (Stone Rune). This rune’s magic channels the insightfulness of a stone giant. While wearing or carrying an object inscribed with this rune, you have advantage on Wisdom (Insight) checks, and you have darkvision out to a range of 60 feet. If you already have darkvision, its range increases by 30 feet.

In addition, when a creature you can see ends its turn within 30 feet of you, you can use your reaction to invoke the rune and force the creature to make a Wisdom saving throw. Unless the save succeeds, the creature is charmed by you for 1 minute. While charmed in this way, the creature has a speed of 0 and is incapacitated, descending into a dreamy stupor. The effect ends if the charmed creature takes any damage or if someone else uses an action to shake the creature out of its haze. Once you invoke the rune, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

While this is another weak passive improving on a skill the fighter probably isn’t great at, at least Insight is a good skill. As for darkvision, almost every race has darkvision or a way to create light, and the difference between 60 and 90 feet is so minor I doubt it’ll ever come up in most campaigns. As for the activated ability, although it shares some of the same issues as the fire rune’s shackles, it has a much better payoff if the monster fails its save. Removing an enemy from a fight without using concentration and with no repeat saves is very good, making this rune my fourth choice.

Uvar (Storm Rune). Using this rune, you can glimpse the future like a storm giant. While wearing or carrying an object inscribed with this rune, you have advantage on Intelligence (Arcana) checks, and you can’t be surprised as long as you are not incapacitated.

In addition, you can invoke the rune as a bonus action to enter a prophetic state for 1 minute or until you’re incapacitated. Until the state ends, when you or another creature you can see within 60 feet of you makes an attack roll, a saving throw, or an ability check, you can use your reaction to cause the roll to have advantage or disadvantage. Once you invoke the rune, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

Another middling passive skill bonus, at least there is a little synergy between the subclass’s intelligence-based saves and the Arcana skill. Immunity to surprise, depending on your GM, could either be completely useless or a lifesaver, so select this rune accordingly. As for the active, I think this is a great out-of-combat ability when your group needs to make a bunch of skill rolls all at once. You can grant advantage to all of them! In combat, granting one attack or saving throw advantage per round is good if not great. This rune would be my fifth choice.

For a feature with so much text, I find the runes’ mechanics surprisingly uninteresting. Most of the passives are barely useful for a fighter, and even the powerful active options aren’t particularly interesting. This feature also has the issue that it gets relatively weaker over time, as presumably any player making use of this subclass will pick the most powerful options first, moving on to weaker runes as they level. The feature also doesn’t play well with a character’s equipment management. By level 15, a Rune Knight will have five runes to inscribe, but they can only put a rune on a shield, suit of armor, or weapon. This means the knight must carry two additional pieces of equipment on them to have all five runes active at once. While this probably won’t cause a mechanical difficulty, it’s a somewhat goofy visual of a fighter carting around a pair of spare shields that only serve as rune holders.

Level 3 – Giant Might

You can imbue yourself with the might of giants. As a bonus action, you magically gain the following benefits, which last for 1 minute:

If you are smaller than Large, you become Large, along with anything you are wearing. If you lack the room to become Large, your size doesn’t change.
You have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saving throws.
Your weapon attacks deal an extra 1d6 damage.
You can use this feature twice, and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.

Though it is a much simpler feature than the previously covered runes, I’d say this is probably the stronger of the two. Increasing size is more thematic than mechanical, and the clause at the end means that your Large self won’t get stuck if you transform in a low corridor. Advantage on strength checks and saving throws is minorly useful, especially if you want to make a grappler. However, it’s the third part of this feature that puts it above runes in my estimation. Fighters attack a lot, since it’s kinda their thing, and adding a free d6 of damage to each of those attacks is a powerful bonus. A level 20 Rune Knight would be able to add an additional 9d6 to their damage in one round. Overall, this is a great feature that synergizes well with some of the more powerful rune options.

Level 7 – Defensive Runes

You learn to invoke your rune magic to protect your allies. When another creature you can see within 60 feet of you is hit by an attack roll, you can use your reaction to grant a bonus to the creature’s AC against that attack. The bonus equals 1 + your Intelligence modifier (minimum of +2).

In addition, you learn one new rune of your choice from the Rune Magic feature (for a total of three).

I really like how this feature pushes the fighter as a protector of the party as well as a puncher of monsters. Being able to grant protection to a party member once a round is powerful and useful in every fight. My one issue continues to be with the subclass’s reliance on intelligence. As anyone who spends time on 5E character builds can tell you, splitting focus between so many stats* is usually a bad idea.

Level 10 – Great Stature

The magic of your runes permanently alters you. When you gain this feature, roll 3d4. You grow a number of inches in height equal to the roll. Moreover, the extra damage you deal with your Giant Might feature increases to 1d8.

In addition, you learn one new rune of your choice from your Rune Magic feature (for a total of four).

Another odd combination of flavor and mechanical bonuses. The height increase portion of this ability is problematic, as it could push an already tall character into the Large size category. Unfortunately, the rules in no way cover this, meaning the Medium-sized Rune Knight could be the same size as the Large monster they’re fighting. The other half of this ability is very welcome, albeit somewhat simple. Now our level 20 Rune Knight adds 9d8 to their damage rolls when they Action Surge.

Level 10 – Rune Magic Mastery

You can invoke each rune you know from your Rune Magic feature twice, rather than once, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a short or long rest.

In addition, you learn one new rune of your choice from the Rune Magic feature (for a total of five).

Another simple yet powerful bonus, this feature doubles the number of times the Rune Knight can activate their runes before resting. I still believe the runes are a bit weak given how this subclass is based around them, but this feature does help alleviate that to some degree.

Level 18 – Blessing of the All Father

You learn how to share your rune magic with your allies. When you use your Giant Might feature, you can choose one willing creature you can see within 60 feet of you. The chosen creature also gains the benefits of your Giant Might feature.

If you have a party member who also likes to hit things a lot, then this feature is great. I can imagine using this on the party’s monk, rewarding their impressive commitment to such a lackluster class with a substantial damage boost to all that punching they get up to. Without another martial character to use this ability on, its usefulness drops off substantially.*

Overall, I’m lukewarm on the Rune Knight. I like the idea a lot more than the actual execution. It’s obvious that Wizards wants the subclass’s runes to be its central feature, but as it stands I don’t think their bonuses are strong enough to succeed in that role. While I wouldn’t feel embarrassed bringing a Rune Knight to a campaign, I would still think wistfully of the Eldritch Knight or Battle Master that I could have been.

What I’d Change

The first change I’d make would be to switch the Rune Knight’s casting stat from intelligence to constitution. Let the fighter use a stat that they are already interested in, just like every full caster class in the game. Since martial characters are already at a disadvantage, adding another stat for them to invest in only widens the gap between them and the top-tier classes of 5E.

I would also change up how rune inscribing works. First, I’d let any number of runes be inscribed on one piece of equipment. Forcing each rune onto a separate piece of gear is an annoyance that adds nothing to the class. I’d also change the bonus each rune gives to depend upon what you engraved it on. Wizards created this unique system of placing runes on different pieces of equipment, but a fire rune on your shield is the same as the one on your sword. Placing a rune on your weapon should push a more aggressive focus, while one on your armor or shield would denote a move defensive mind state.

I would also change the runes themselves. While I’m less sure about the specifics of these changes, I have a couple ideas that are more useful than what is currently on offer. The first possible change would be, in addition to advantage on X skill, the Rune Knight could substitute their choice of strength or dexterity for the skill’s normal stat. This would allow the Rune Knight to actually function as a competent skill machine even compared to a rogue or bard. I would also focus on making more of the runes use the character’s reaction if possible.* For example, the hill rune’s damage resistance could be triggered with a reaction upon receiving damage. There are a bunch of directions the runes could be taken compared to where they are now, but I definitely think they could use some spicing up to really invoke the fantasy the Rune Knight is trying to conjure.

The only change I’d make to Giant Might is to add a “may” clause into its size increase text, removing the “if you don’t have room don’t grow” portion. In its current form you could transform in a larger space and then be stymied by a small corridor, whereas if you had just transformed in said corridor you’d be fine. I find this interaction somewhat silly, and adding a “may” clause would remedy it handily.

When it comes to defensive runes, I would make two alterations. The first would be to change the relevant stat from intelligence to constitution, the same way I did with the runes. The second change would be to make the bonus last a whole round, similar to the way the Shield spell operates. If this proved too powerful, I’d impose a limit per short rest equal to the fighter’s constitution modifier.

For Great Stature I’d replace the increased height with an additional five-foot reach on all attacks. This changes the formerly flavor-only height increase into a tangible in-game benefit. Increased reach is often a trait of larger creatures, and this allows the player to feel like their character is getting bigger without having to actually increase their size category.

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Comments

  1. DeviousQuail

    This is a fun series of articles so keep them coming. As for my thoughts:
    This archetype does push the fighter to a more MAD place than most of its archetypes. However, if there is one class that can push past this issue it’s the fighter since they get two extra ASIs compared to most classes. I’d probably leave Intelligence for the DCs.

    I would have liked the runes to be a bit stronger but I liked the idea of each having a passive and activated effect. My first thought was that they could be placed on ally equipment to grant the benefits to the ally instead of yourself (though still using your DC for saves). Not sure if that is how others read it but it makes the excess runes at later levels make more sense. It also gives the group more mileage since the ally with decent Wisdom/Charisma/Tools can get the benefit instead of yourself.

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you like them =). If fighters were stronger compared to other classes I’d be okay with MAD subclasses, but given their middling performance it feels like penalizing an already underperforming class. Maybe if Int was a better stat I’d be happier with it, but as is it’s one of the least useful stats in the game.

      There are so many directions I thought of for runes that I didn’t have the time or space to write them all out. My main takeaway is that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

  2. Prince Infidel

    I feel Ari is missing the big advantage of this sub-class is that there’s nothing stating that the weapons & armor have to be the Knight’s. In fact most of what I’ve seen have been people assuming that the Rune Knight is meant to empower their other party member’s gear as much as their own. That’s them functioning as intended.

    While a fighter is less likely to be good at these skills, other classes will be. Meaning the Rune Knight can make a wizard or rogue or bard never fail a roll in the skill they invested into. Getting as close to guaranteed success as 5e gets.

    This isn’t to say this sub-class doesn’t have flaws. Ari is certainly right about how the system punishes players for spreading themselves over multiple abilities (having played a paladin, I can personally attest to this). And the runes clearly need tweaking to keep them competitive with many simpler yet more powerful features.

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      As it is currently worded I do not believe anyone else can benefit from the fighter’s runes. We’ve seen a class that creates items other characters can use, the Artificer, and their ability has specific wording referencing “creatures” using the item. On the other hand, the fighter only references “you”. Allowing the rune knight to share its runed items would be an improvement, but I’d argue that it would still be problematic because the person actually playing the run knight still doesn’t get a benefit, instead watching everyone else be cool. While some players are fine with this type of play pattern, many are not, and I don’t believe classes should be designed that way.

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