On Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures, Part 1: a System of Hats

One of the complaints I have about 5E is that it has so few options, and that’s a complaint I expected to have. I have the same issue whenever I pick up any Core D&D book because it can only pack so much information into its page count. Core books focus on a narrow western-European medieval setting with a specific magic level, a few races, popular monsters, and so on. As we play in the system, more books simultaneously come out, and over time we get a feel both for what the system can handle and what we want to do with it. It’s a necessary limitation of a game that doesn’t try or purport to cover its full depth in a single book.

Overall I’m excited by articles like Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures. I like having more options, and I prefer having those options in themed updates and splatbooks (Masters of the Wild, Complete Warrior, Ultimate Magic, Arcana Power) even if it means I may have to wait a while until the options I want come out. Water-faring gaming wouldn’t have been my first choice, and I might have chosen a name that didn’t inspire confusion with the fantastic 3.5E Unearthed Arcana, wasn’t four words long, and didn’t have the acronym UAWA which I will unfailingly say phonetically, but I’m sure the eventual book or books containing these options won’t have that issue.

Then I read it. Now my feelings are somewhat more mixed. There’s some really good stuff in there, but there’s also material that makes me dread where 5E is going.

Let’s start with the bad news. Long-time readers know nothing gets my goat as much as D&D’s treatment of race. And speaking of goats (I’m not very good at animals), UAWA has this to way about its playtest minotaur:

Casting minotaurs as conquest‐minded, honorable pirates gives them a distinct flavor while providing many roleplaying hooks for players. When adding a new race to your own campaign, it’s always a good idea to think about its culture, its relationship to other folk, and how the two can combine to give it a unique place in your world.

I have two problems with this, one general and one I admit is more specific to my own playstyle.

The focus here is on a race with a “distinct flavor” and a “unique place”. That is, the focus is not on a race that is “fun to play”. The current minotaur is an arrogant, war-minded brute who explicitly throws himself or herself into battle as a personal mission and only allies with people who feel the same way. “Attacks everything it can for personal glory and lords power and success over others” isn’t a race. It’s not a culture. It’s barely a character. It’s a hat.

You may be interested in the TV Tropes page for Planet of Hats for a detailed definition. For readers in a hurry or readers who just love how I slap words together, it’s the trope for a case when the story presents a culture with a single defining characteristic, like “everybody here is stubborn and pragmatic” or “everybody is an arrogant environmentalist”. All members of his culture have this characteristic, and rarely do they have another. It’s somewhat acceptable in a story where the protagonists visit a new culture every week. In a persistent universe like D&D, it’s just lazy.

I’ve beaten this drum before, but for a monster. As little as I like folding an entire race like origami so the developers can fit it into the simplest, least interesting niche possible, it’s even worse when it happens for an option players are ostensibly intended to use. Do you want to play a character who sometimes negotiates? Sorry, minotaurs don’t do that. Somebody friendly to new people? Nope. Somebody capable of lying? Somebody who views their allies as equals? Somebody who was born or raised on a mountain, or in a desert, or anything besides the sea and coast? Then minotaurs aren’t the race for you. They occupy a narrative space so small it’s practically worthless. I can’t imagine why the author would think it gives players “many roleplaying hooks”. It doesn’t. It provides one.

The minotaur is good for designers, bad for players. Players wanted to be minotaurs, and the designers couldn’t think of a character for them besides “big and strong”. This isn’t my typical hyperbolic condemnation of an imaginary strawman designer, either:

We chose the minotaurs of Krynn as the model for our depiction of this race for a very specific reason. Tying them to the sea and a distinct culture helps give minotaurs more flavor than serving as just another big, brutish monster race. After all, we already have half‐orcs in the Player’s Handbook and the goliath in our Elemental Evil Player’s Companion.

“Big” is not a character type except in fighting games and professional wrestling (and often not even then). But the solution is not to load the minotaur with so much mandatory culture that it’s unusable outside the three-foot-square they’re allowed to occupy.

Which leads into my other problem: the minotaur can’t be reskinned. This is a large race with a piercing natural weapon, the ability (in fact, the tendency) to use that weapon while charging, a perfect sense of direction, and an inborn understanding of boats. A DM or player needs to jump through a lot of hoops to turn that into something besides Krynn minotaurs (…Krynnotaurs). Heck, they don’t even work for minotaurs in other D&D settings unless you swap out their racial proficiencies. I can’t do anything interesting with this minotaur, and if something isn’t interesting it has no value to me.

But the minotaur isn’t about being interesting. It’s about filling a role the game didn’t need. It’s about making players want the race the designers want them to want. It’s about defining everything in D&D with a few buzzwords and calling it a day. It’s about a System of Hats.

Not all hope is lost, however. The class options in UAWA are exciting in a good way, and I’ll go over that next time.

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