November 17, 2016

[Unearthing the Arcana] Barbarian Primal Paths

Unearthing the Arcana is a column for me to study the design and thought process of the latest Unearthed Arcana rules put out by Wizards of the Coast. This column aims for me to point out some observations I've made on the rules, imagine its impact at the table and raise discussions of how it would be used or played if it becomes official.

Some big changes have been announced for the Unearthed Arcana column from Wizards recently at Gamehole Con. Instead of a monthly column, Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford have announced that they would be turning it into weekly column, which means there will be plenty of new rules and variants to play with in the coming months. I'm not sure if I and this column would be able to keep up with the schedule, so I most likely going to have a few gaps here and there, as new Unearthed Arcana rules are put out on faster rate.

Starting off in this new schedule is a new Unearthed Arcana with new Barbarian Primal Paths. The new Primal Paths are Path of the Ancestral Guardian, Path of the Storm Herald, and Path of the Zealot. Each of these are different flavored barbarians with some interesting mechanical features tied to them.

From a general outlook, I find that each of these Primal Paths imply a unique way of playing the Barbarian, as reflected by their mechanics and it would be interesting to see its iterations until it reaches official print. For this Unearthed Arcana, the designers do not seem to be setting out to change anything for the Barbarian but to give them new options. As a whole, these are definitely some welcomed options for the Barbarian class that can shift their role in the party.

Path of the Ancestral Guardian

Bound and protected by the spirits of their ancestors, the Path of the Ancestral Guardian seems to have a lot in common with the Path of the Totem Warrior, in terms of the flavor, and even their mechanics can feel a little similar too.

Ancestral Protectors is essentially marking mechanism that ties down a creature to the Barbarian as a Bonus Action while raging, granting disadvantage to attack at anyone else but the Barbarian, and even making it harder for the creature to disengage from the Barbarian, who can easily catch up with the Barbarian's Fast Movement at later levels.

Ancestral Shield is an interesting mechanic that allows it to transfer its damage resistances while raging as a bonus action to allies. This calls for some tactical decision as the Barbarian can give away its resistances to anyone as long as they are within range and in sight, as many times as they want during combat. 

Consult the Spirits looks like it was trying to be a variant of the Path of the Totem Warrior's Spirit Walker feature at 10th level. Rather than communing with the ancestral spirits, however, the Barbarian is granted advantage to its Intelligence and Wisdom checks as much as 3 times per Long Rest.  

Vengeful Ancestors adds a damaging element similar to the Ancestral Shield which deals damage to creatures that hit you or an ally within range and in sight. The use of a Reaction already limits how powerful it can be in combat (1/turn), and 2d8 Force damage may not put a big dent to the monsters that Barbarian would be facing at 14th level.

Aside from Consult the Spirits, the Path of the Ancestral Guardian puts an interesting twist to the protective role of the Barbarian that is taken by the Path of the Totem Warrior. Rather than being a powerful absorbent of damage like the Totem Warrior, the Path of the Ancestral Guardian is more tactical is pinning down powerful enemies with Ancestral Protectors, while still being able to protect squishier allies with Ancestral Shield. This would certainly make choosing between the two paths a little harder for players, but they should be glad to have both options. 

Path of the Storm Herald

Using their primal rage as a conduit for primal magic to be centered around them, I personally find the name a little tacky, but generally think a weather themed Primal Path seems almost natural for the Barbarian.

This one shares some similarities with the Path of the Totem Warrior, the same way that they have to select 3 different variations of their features. Instead of animal spirits, the Path of the Storm Herald selects between three terrains; Desert, Sea and Tundra, which can generally be remembered as Fire, Lightning or Cold for their effects. However, instead of being able to pick a different animal for each primal path feature in Path of the Totem Warrior, once the element is chosen, future primal path features are based on the element chosen for the rest of the primal path.

This path introduces an aura-mechanic that are similar to the Paladin class, but instead of buffing party members, the 10-feet radius aura emanates negative effects or protections based on the chosen elements. This aura only appears when the Barbarian is raging, except for one of the feature.

Storm of Fury deals damage to a single or any enemies  (depending on the damage type) within the aura based on the selected element.

Storm Soul grants the barbarian resistance against the chosen damage type, and an additional benefit against it. This is then granted to allies within the aura with Shield of the Storm.

Raging Storm turns the aura into dangerous area of effects that reduces mobility of enemies.

I personally have mixed feelings with the aura mechanic in general, so giving it to the Barbarian might seem like a logical choice of design, but not necessarily my favourite because of the additional book keeping it requires. The calculation of damage for Storm of Fury is very clunky, which could be refined with a tier-like structure or a similar mode of calculation that other classes and features might already be using. Having this feature early makes it significantly more useful (and powerful) than the Path of the Ancestral Guardian's Vengeful Ancestors so I think the designers will be thinking more on how to get the right amount of damage output.

Path of the Zealot 

This one is probably the most surprising theme for the Barbarian, but the simplicity of its mechanics is also my favourite out of the three. This may not be the first time I'm seeing a divinely guided Barbarian, but I can myself doing away with the divine connection, and apply them to something more spiritual or frenzy.

This is the only Primal Path that gets 2 primal path features upon reaching 3rd level, with Divine Fury and Warrior of the Gods. Divine Fury is a much more straightforward but also likely to be a more damaging version of Storm of Fury, that I'm not sure how the designers are going to balance between the two. Warrior of the Gods is a very nice feature to have for a class that is most likely to get killed, although I could use to have it a higher levels when spellcasters in the party would have access to the more expensive spells for bringing back the dead.

Zealous Focus is an interesting feature that could prematurely end the barbarian's rage, so it's hard to tell how effective it is without actually playing it on the table. If I was a player, I may only use it to end a Rage that is almost near the end of its duration, and I also save a Bonus Action to do that.

Zealous Presence looks a little out of place for me to fit with the flavor, but it's a feature that players would have no complaints about, especially since it doesn't require the Barbarian to be raging to use it. That is probably where the designers will look into, if they want to nerf it. There are no comparable class features at that level I could find that is comparable, so this one could be more on the high side of the power curve.

The idea of Rage Beyond Death is cool, but it completely makes the Barbarian's Persistent Rage base feature a level later redundant. It is possible that this was the intention of the designers to make this primal path more attractive, but I prefer class features to have more synergy.  

Aside from the flavor, I like the Path of the Zealot for being a die-hard barbarian, which makes features like Divine Fury and Zealous Presence seemed like a tacked on idea to the theme of the Path of the Zealot. It would be great if the designers refined the features of the Path of the Zealot to make it tougher and harder to kill.   

All in all, I like seeing these new Primal Paths for the Barbarians and granted that these are still first drafts, it is still too early to judge them for anything. There are certainly places that could be improved and refined for the mechanics, but the real work for me, I would think, is in hitting the right flavor of some of these Primal Paths. I'm in the direction I see the designers are taking with the class, so I would be interested to see where they would take it in the next iteration. 

So share your thoughts about these Primal Paths here and if you haven't already, the feedback survey for these primal paths is already up,

See you in the next Unearthing the Arcana where I go attend the new Bard Colleges

Last Updated: 17/11/2016 

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