Roleplaying

Unearthed Arcana Review: Onomancer Wizard

A wizard surrounded by pages of paper blowing in the wind.
Wizards have been one of the most powerful classes in D&D for many editions, if not the most powerful. They have an extensive spell list and the ability to learn new spells from other wizards or scrolls found while adventuring. Adding on to this powerful base is a selection of subclasses ranging from Divination’s dice manipulation to Evocation’s overpowering damage spells. Given this wide range of mechanical foci, I was interested to see what the School of Onomancy* had to offer. Using a creature’s true name to hold power over it has been a mainstay of myth and fiction for millennia, and I hope it receives the positive treatment it deserves. To see if that hope pans out, let’s take a look at the Onomancer’s features, starting at level 2.

Level 2 – Bonus Proficiencies

You learn one language of your choice and gain proficiency with calligrapher’s supplies.

I’ve covered language and tool proficiencies in previous entries of this series, but to reiterate, they are middling at best. Language barriers are rarely an issue and are solved easily with low-level spells. Tools’ role in 5E is vague and, without specific effort from the GM, rarely see much use. Like similar features before it, I label this one “mostly fluff.” Thankfully, it’s not the only ability the subclass gains at this level.

Level 2 – Extract Name

You can magically compel a creature to divulge its true name. As a bonus action, you target one creature you can see within 60 feet of you. The target must make a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC. On a successful save, you discern that this magic failed, and you can’t use this feature on the target again. On a failed save, the target is charmed by you until the end of your next turn, and you mentally learn the charmed target’s name or the fact that the target lacks a name.

You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.

Oof, this feature is the core of the subclass, and it is full of issues. The idea is that the wizard will attempt to discern a target’s true name before using that name to improve the spell they’re casting at the target. The main problem is that if this attempt fails, the wizard can never force the target to disclose their name. This turns off literally every other feature the subclass gains. This is annoying enough with a minor enemy, but if the campaign’s big boss succeeds its save with, say, Legendary Resistance, the wizard has no recourse. Their abilities will never work.

This ability also has implications for the setting it’s a part of. If knowing someone’s name could grant a spellcaster power over you, then using a rotation of pseudonyms would simply be the smart thing to do, especially if you’re a villain planning to achieve world domination. If people don’t use pseudonyms, then this feature’s usefulness is limited to learning the names of faceless minions, as the party will most likely know the big bad’s name.

There’s also the huge issue of the target not having a true name. Wizards of the Coast defines a true name as “the name by which a self-aware creature identifies itself.” Unfortunately, a massive number of enemies do not fit into this category. All told, a feature with so many design problems and narrow application makes the entire subclass not worth playing, which is a shame.

Level 2 – Fateful Naming

You can bend magic to assist or hinder creatures through the power of their true names, and even use those names as an anchor to affect others around them. The bane and bless spells are wizard spells for you, and you add them to your spellbook. You always have them prepared, yet they don’t count against the number of spells you can prepare.

You can cast either spell without expending a spell slot if you speak the true name of one target of the spell as part of casting it. You can cast the spells in this way a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (a minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

Setting aside the fundamentally broken nature of this subclass, this feature is pretty good for low-level play. Bless is a good spell this early on, and hopefully the wizard will know the true names of their party members so they can cast it for free. It’s a shame that this feature doesn’t unlock more spells to be used this way as the wizard levels, since Bane and Bless are quickly left behind by stronger options.

Level 6 – Resonant Utterance

You learn words of power called Resonants, which allow you to tailor your spells through the use of a target’s true name.

Resonants Known. When you gain this feature, you learn two Resonants of your choice, which are detailed in the “Resonant Options” section. Each time you gain a level in this class, you can replace one resonant you know with a different one.

Using a Resonant. You can use one Resonant when you cast a wizard spell with a spell slot and speak the true name of one creature targeted by the spell. Speaking the name is part of casting the spell. You can use Resonants a number of times equal to half of your wizard level (round down), and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

In a lot of ways this feature reminds me of a sorcerer’s Metamagics, if that feature were substantially better balanced. I even think that most of the options available are of similar power level. However, I do think that adding more options for buff spells cast on the wizard’s allies would make the subclass more interesting.

Absorption. When you cast a spell that deals damage to the named target, you gain 3d6 temporary hit points. The number of temporary hit points you gain increases by 1d6 when you reach 10th level (4d6) and 14th level (5d6) in this class.

A good work-a-day option, gaining temporary hit points is universally useful and will help keep the wizard alive when the enemies finally reach them. That said, I don’t like that this ability continues the trend of generating temporary hit points with no duration. It encourages the use of combat abilities outside of combat, meaning that the character has their temporary hit points activated before going into a dangerous situation.

Devastation. If the spell requires the named creature to make a saving throw, that creature has disadvantage on the first save it makes against the spell.

A great option for a wizard who likes to focus on spells that require saves. Things like Hold Humanoid/Monster come to mind as particularly good. The Metamagic version of this is weak due to how expensive it is to activate, but this ability costs the same as the others, making it much more attractive.

Dissolution. The first time the named creature takes damage from the spell, that creature takes an extra 2d8 force damage. The extra force damage increases by 1d8 when you reach 10th level (3d8) and 14th level (4d8) in this class.

Smite for wizards with built-in scaling? Yes, please. This is a sizable boost to the wizard’s single target damage, an area the class is relatively weak in. I like the balance struck here between the damage boost and its associated restrictions to ensure that the feature’s power remains reasonable.

Nullification. If the named target is affected by any other spells, you know what those spells are, and you can attempt to end one of your choice by succeeding on an Intelligence check with a DC equal to 10 + the level of the chosen spell.

This is the first option with support applications. Many players have stories of their most powerful party member falling under the effect of some mind magic and turning on the party. With this Resonant, the wizard can put a stop to that nonsense with a simple intelligence check. Of course, this option also functions as a way to remove buff spells on enemies without forcing the wizard to dedicate their turn to casting Dispel Magic. It’s also important to remember that if you want to remove a negative effect on a party member, while a helpful buff is preferable as a delivery method, the Magic Missile of Dispel Magic is always an option.

Puppetry. The first time the named creature takes damage from the spell, you can knock the creature prone or move it up to 10 feet, either directly toward you or away from you.

One of the weaker options on this list, Puppetry has niche usage as a way to grant their party’s melee attacks advantage by knocking their target over. The lack of a save is also nice, and the image of knocking a Tarrasque on its ass with your Firebolt is almost reason enough to pick this Resonant. Unfortunately, while that kind of effect is nice, it doesn’t measure up to those I’ve already covered. Ten feet of forced movement will rarely see use, as most enemies will be able to cover the distance immediately after being pushed. Knocking an enemy over is more useful, but between unreliable initiative order, party members who already grant themselves advantage, and a prone enemy actually granting disadvantage to ranged attacks against them, it is not worth a Resonant slot.

Sympathy. If the named creature is within range of the spell, you can target the creature with the spell even if you can’t see the creature or it has total cover against the spell.

And we get to what is definitely the weakest option available. Setting aside that the wizard needs to see its target to extract their true name, I can’t think of the last time I needed to cast a spell on a target within range that either had full cover or was out of my line of sight. While I can imagine scenarios where this Resonant would be very useful, those specific situations are few and far between.

Level 10 – Inexorable Pronouncement

You learn two new Resonants of your choice from your Resonant Utterance feature.

I’m almost positive this is the shortest amount of text for a full subclass feature I’ve seen yet. Thankfully there are enough good Resonants that picking two additional options doesn’t feel too bad. However, it is still an inherently weaker feature than the one found at level 6. This is because you already picked the options you consider most powerful at level 6, so a feature like this has you selecting your third and fourth choice, which I consider bad design. I think buffing the Resonants alongside gaining more options would help beef up this feature.

Level 14 – Relentless Naming

You have learned how to bypass a named creature’s defenses against certain types of damage. When you cast a spell that deals damage to a creature whose true name you speak as part of casting the spell, you can cause the spell to deal force or psychic damage to the creature, instead of the spell’s normal damage type.

Another disappointing capstone feature, this time due to a lack of interesting choices and applicable situations. To put it plainly, changing spell damage types against a single target would be a weak level 3 feature, let alone one found at level 14. Damage immunity and resistance are fairly infrequent in 5E, and when they do come up, most wizards will most likely have alternative spell options that they can use to switch their damage types without ever using this feature.

Out of all the subclasses I’ve reviewed so far, this one has to have the worst design. While others might have been undertuned or failed to match mechanics with flavor, the Onomancer is broken on a fundamental level. In order to use any feature of the subclass, the wizard needs to learn the target’s name, often through the Extract Name feature. Setting aside the huge number of enemies that simply don’t have names, hinging an entire subclass on Extract Name’s single wisdom save is a terrible idea.

Thankfully, I am here to single-handedly fix all of Wizards of the Coast’s mistakes.

What I’d Change

Alright, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the definition of a true name and the associated Extract Name feature. According to Wizards of the Coast, a true name is “the name by which a self-aware creature identifies itself.” In my case, that would make my true name Ari Ashkenazi. No mystical title that connects my true essence with the fabric of the universe, just the name my parents happened to choose for me. 

While I’m glad that this definition includes names chosen for oneself,* from an in-world perspective it’s simply too mundane. Why does knowing Bob the Fighter’s name let my wizard smite him with a Firebolt? The existence of this school of magic also means pretty much everyone should operate via revolving pseudonyms,* as using their real name opens them up to a host of dangerous abilities. This definition also means that any creature that is not self-aware has no true name, and is therefore immune to the Onomancer. I assume this covers every beast, most monstrosities, and a host of other monsters.

Given all these issues, let’s redefine what a true name is:

Names have power. Every object and living thing has a true name, that which ties its very being to the fabric of the universe. Most never know their true name or even its existence. Onomancers are wizards that have dedicated their lives to studying the nature of reality and the names that link living beings to it. Through intensive training, those who follow the school of Onomancy have gained the ability to identify a creature’s true name and use that name to enhance their spellwork.

With that definition established, let’s look at Extract Name. Rather than picking apart the ability as it’s currently written, I’ll just make my own.

Your magic has the ability to glean a creature’s true name. Whenever a spell you cast affects a creature, you can force that creature to make a contested roll using their charisma save against your Arcana (Intelligence). The target may choose to fail this save. On a successful save, you discern that this magic failed, and there are no further effects. On a failed save, you learn the target’s true name.

I’ve made quite a few changes here. First and foremost, I removed the “you can’t use this feature on the target again” clause present in the original ability. That single inclusion broke the entire subclass, and I hope Wizards of the Coast removes it before the final release.

Secondly, I changed the activation trigger from a bonus action to a passive inclusion on any spell the wizard casts. I think this trigger is more in line with the subclass’s flavor and is less mechanically punishing. Bonus actions are important; requiring a character to spend one to maybe activate their subclass feels mean. 

Thirdly, I changed the save from wisdom versus spell save to charisma versus Arcana. Charisma represents a creature’s force of personality; trying to find the name that represents someone’s connection to the universe feels more personality based than the mind-based saves normally associated with wisdom. From a mechanical perspective, it’s also nice, since charisma rarely sees any love as the basis for a save. As for changing the roll to contested, I wanted the roll to feel like the wizard is actively trying to discern a target’s true name. I also wanted to give the player the chance to specialize in this ability. Unlike a spell save DC, the Arcana skill can be raised with things like Expertise. I personally like the image of a Lore bard/Onomancer wizard that bases their study of true names off their love of stories.

Fourthly, I removed any limitations on the number of times this ability can be used. Extract Name, in itself, does nothing. It is merely a gateway to the subclass’s other abilities, which already have their own usage limitations. As long as the wizard has spells to cast, they should be allowed to try and learn someone’s true name.

Next, I’d modify Fateful Naming to build on its flavor and add in some scaling. As written, the ability loses a lot of its value once the wizard gains level 2 spell slots, as Bane and Bless are not particularly powerful compared to any higher-level options. I would add more spells to this feature as the wizard levels, ensuring that it would continue to be useful.

Spell Level Spells
1st Bane, Bless
2nd Calm Emotions, Warding Bond
3rd Bestow Curse, Life Transference
4th Freedom of Movement, Locate Creature
5th Geas, Greater Restoration

Looking at Inexorable Pronouncement, I would add some sort of improvement for Resonants along with granting two more selections. The easiest improvement would be to set the number of times a Resonant could be used to the wizard’s level, doubling the number of activations. I’m not entirely happy with that change, as it’s still not terribly interesting, but it’s better than literally nothing.

Finally we get to Relentless Naming. This ability is both bad and boring, so I’m throwing the whole thing out. In its place I would have a feature that works something like this.

Upon learning a creature’s true name, you select a Resonant, and you may apply that Resonant for free whenever you cast a spell targeting that creature. A second Resonant may also be applied per the Resonant Utterance ability, but the same Resonant cannot be applied more than once.

This kind of ability would definitely need playtesting to make sure it was balanced, but for material like Unearthed Arcana, I’d prefer to err on the side of overpowered than underpowered.


This brings us to the end of my first round of Unearthed Arcana reviews. From the highs of bard and paladin to the lows of ranger and sorcerer, I’m at least glad to see Wizards of the Coast putting out this many potential subclasses, even if a lot of them aren’t particularly good. After spending so much time with each subclass, I’ve noticed certain patterns. The small design team at WotC responsible for creating this content has proven fairly good at delivering consistently built subclasses that all obey similar design philosophies. However, they also seem trapped by those same philosophies, being either unwilling or unable to look outside the box for design ideas. This was most noticeable with the ranger subclass, as it did nothing to improve on the class’s deficiencies, but I felt this hindrance’s presence even in the good subclasses. There is so much unused design space in 5E, and a quick look at all the high-quality homebrew* people have made shows that much. I hope that in the future Wizards of the Coast is more willing to step outside their comfort zone when building 5E content.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. P Schaefer

    Nice design analysis and development work, Ari. I’ve been enjoying it.

    • Ari Ashkenazi

      Thanks =). Now it’s time to sharpen my DPR calculator and get to work on a new build article.

  2. Danita Rambo

    Really enjoying these!

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