D&D Class: Alpha Subclasses
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! Last week we introduced you to our new class for Dungeons & Dragons: the Alpha. The alpha is a true tamer/"pet" class, using real beasts (not conjurations like the druid) as your allies in and out of battle.
With the class outlined (which you can find here), today we will examine the nine subclasses that we have created for the alpha. They are presented in no particular order, each showcasing a different element to the "pet class" motif, and providing wildly different options for gameplay.
I. The Shaman
The shaman is an alpha that extends their pack to plant creatures, embracing all of nature's children. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
The shaman is a heavy control subclass, taking the natural knockdown abilities of beasts and combining them with unique entangling abilities from plant monsters, making for a fun and flavorful subclass. When you first take the subclass at 3rd level, you gain the effects of Speak with Plants all the time, and you gain proficiency with herbalist kits, so you can become a healer for your party by making healing potions.
Your plant pack members also produce food, so you can save your party the need to find food so long as your plant monsters are alive. Keep in mind that if your plant pack members die in combat, you will lose provisioning ability for the party as well.
As you level up, your plant pack members gain the ability to slow (and possibly even knock prone) your enemies, giving you the ability to provide battlefield control for the party. As you continue to level you will also gain the Tree Stride ability all the time and your plant pack members will increase in speed, so you will not only slow enemies but you will also move more quickly, compensating for your lower hit point pool compared to other martial classes.
At its highest level the shaman and your pack members (plants and beasts) begin to develop a bark-like exterior, granting you and your pack members resistance to non-magical slashing and piercing damage, and you inflict a -2 penalty to shooting and spell attacks (to reflect the stopping power of the bark), increasing your resilience.
II. The Animist
While the shaman is a control-centric class with unique beasts, the animist is the spellcaster option. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery. The animist is more of a "half caster," maxing out at 5th level spells, but also lagging behind the spell count of the paladin and the ranger. On the other hand, though, you do gain useful spells to augment the damage of your pack members that grow in power over time.
You use Wisdom as your casting stat, and you gain access to nature-oriented spells, so think druidic and ranger spells. At each subclass feature you also gain bonuses to some of your spells, designed to help you lead the pack, aid the party, and fix some spells that I really don't like in D&D as-written (cool concepts, just poorly executed in my opinion - expect a supplement at some point on fixes I'd make to spells). It starts with being able to cast Animal Friendship and Create and Destroy Water as ritual spells (because why isn't this the case), and your Resistance cantrip no longer requires your concentration, making it more attractive as a cantrip choice.
As you level up, your Blade Ward cantrip lasts for 1 minute instead of 1 round (also making it more attractive as a choice), and you can cast Pass without Trace and Darkvision without expending a spell slot. As you continue to progress you also gain the ability to cast Sending without expending a spell slot, and your damage with Thorn Whip increases (to help it scale better with the monsters you are facing). As you reach the pinnacle of the subclass, beasts gain disadvantage on their Wisdom saving throw to resist being tamed (so you become the best of the alphas at taming creatures), and you can cast Scrying and Tree Stride at will.
So you have a utility caster that is not as good as other casters, but you make up for this through Attack actions and Help actions from pack members and a helpful suite of sweet spells (see what we did there? Hehe, okay I'll stop).
III. The Cragwalker
A stealth and melee-centric subclass for people who like sneaking up on people and ambushing them with their pack, the cragwalker is arguably the most offensive build for the alpha. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
The cragwalker has more of a rogue vibe to it, relying on stealth, high mobility, and a deadly slew of attacks to fell your foes. You don't have as many ways to empower or increase the resilience of your pack members, but what you do gain is a torrent of damage "on wheels" so to speak.
Unlike other alphas the cragwalker gains the ability to Dash as a bonus action, giving you by far the fastest moving pack. You and your pack members also gain a climb and swim speed equal to your walk speed, which means you can hoof it over any and all terrain. This is further increased as you go along, and you eventually gain the ability to move through occupied spaces without suffering a penalty to your movement and without provoking opportunity attacks.
As you advance, your damage with your weapons increases, with your knives and clubs eventually doing as much damage as a one-handed longsword. Your pack members also see a modest boost to their damage, which stacks up as the attacks start pouring in. At the pinnacle of this subclass, your Extra Attack also allows you to perform three attacks instead of two, making you the most potent archer/melee attacker of the alpha subclasses.
So if you really want to tear apart your foes with fang and fletching all while staying quick and light on your feet, consider the cragwalker.
IV. The Skinshifter
Werecreatures are outcasts of society, and for good reason: who could ever learn to love a beast? The skinshifter alpha loves them, embracing the changes and encouraging pack members to use their new-found strengths and abilities to aid the pack in its survival under your wise leadership. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
The skinshifter is reminiscent of the Totem Barbarian in that you pick a form that you have an affinity for, and that form grants you added abilities at higher levels. There are a variety of forms: fliers (granting you mobility and damage options), swimmers (granting you bonuses in water and damage after moving), some defenders who will increase your resilience, and some stealth options. So all told there is a lot of variety here, which is to be expected from nine different forms.
You also gain the ability to add skinshifters to your pack: wererats, werewolves, werebears, weretigers, wereboars - whatever you may find. This gives you some added versatility, not only because a lot of these creatures have resistances to damage (which should increase their survivability), but also because they add special abilities to your repertoire, aiding you in combat in ways that other alphas don't have.
At higher levels you and your pack members gain the ability to knock targets prone when you deal damage, suffer damage on behalf of nearby pack members, and at the pinnacle of your subclass you gain protection against being banished to other planes and having your skinshifting curses removed. So while not the strongest subclass (perhaps; it's debatable), it is very flavorful with lots of options for repeatability in one-off campaigns: choose a different affinity, and your playstyle radically changes.
V. The Marked One
An alpha noted for its runic tattoos and painted texts that grant it power to better control and aid the pack, the Marked One is arguably my favorite of the subclasses. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
Like the warlock's eldritch invocations, the Marked One relies on runic tattoos to grant it boons in and out of combat. These tattoos (called "Marks") can grant resistances, bonuses to pack members, bonuses to attacks or damage, advantage on ability checks - all manner of things. By the highest levels of the subclass you'll have five of these, so like the skinshifter there is a lot of room for variety and replayability in this subclass.
In addition to your marks, you gain extra advantages to improve the defensiveness and durability of you and your pack members, filling the role of the frontline fighter much like a barbarian. Whether this is spending your reaction to grant yourself temporary hit points against an incoming attack, gaining resistance to slashing damage, increasing your Armor Class, or treating critical strikes as normal strikes, the Marked One is designed to live for a long time - far longer than other alphas who come under attack. And since you gain proficiency with shields at 3rd level, your Armor Class will also be higher than other alphas with only a few exceptions (turtle skinshifters being the big one).
This is a "Barbarian Pet Class" build with a healthy bit of warlock flavoring for good measure, and if you enjoy that aesthetic, give it a try. It is fun to play.
VI. The Bone Guardian
Bones get lonely, and when they do, they find solace and community in the pack of a Bone Guardian. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
The Bone Guardian does the best job in my opinion of building a necromancer in D&D: no shenanigans with standard spells, because let's be real: none of the standard spells in D&D allow you to play a necromancer at the head of an army. So if you really want to play a necromancer at the head of an undead force (potentially 80 skeletons or zombies, activating 5 of them every turn for many, many turns before you start running out), may I recommend the Bone Guardian.
The bone guardian has a very straightforward set of bonuses - it's one of the shortest subclasses in terms of word count both among our material and the D&D canon. But in that short set of paragraphs you'll find a fun and radically unique way to play a "pet class," as you start the game using skeletons and zombies, and by the end might be using hexwraiths, blood hulks, and a terrorgheist if your game master allows you to find one (but only one, because of pack rules on CR levels; call it "game balance and maintaining the fun for the rest of the party"). So your "pack" will look radically different than any other on this list.
When you first start at 3rd level you have the ability to add undead monsters to your pack. You also have the ability to turn a standard beast into an undead version of that beast, increasing its hit points while reducing its speed. This means that, especially at lower levels, you will likely have the most durable pack members of any class, save perhaps the shaman depending on the plant creatures they find.
As you level up you grant the Undead Fortitude ability to yourself and all members of your pack (and those that already have the ability gain advantage on the saving throw, so they become even more resilient than they were before). This will increase your durability in combat even more than it already is, as you have a chance of not going down when you take lethal damage.
You also gain added potency for your offensive capabilities, adding necrotic damage to the attacks that you and your pack members make (which stacks with other necrotic damage they may already do, depending on the composition of your pack). Add onto this resistance to non-magical piercing damage, and you have yourself a very unique and versatile pack.
VII. The Fey Caller
An alpha who has made friends with the fey, the Fey Caller does not cast spells, but gains access to a host of spellcasting pack members with many spell options. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
While the animist casts spells and the shaman makes friends with plants, fey callers make allies with quicklings, sprites, pixies, dryads, and other fey creatures. Your pack will likely have the smallest pool of hit points, but when it comes to magic defense and versatility, it's hard to beat the Fey Caller.
The subclass starts by giving you two things: access to fey pack members, and you and your pack members learn the Sylvan language. If you already know Sylvan, you gain the ability to command pack members with your reaction rather than your bonus action. This gives you the rare ability to command your pack and gain the bonus action mobility bonuses of the class, aiding you in staying one swing ahead of your opponent.
As you progress, you gain enhanced magic defense, starting with the typical "Fey Ancestry" and "Magic Resistance" bonuses, and at higher levels gaining resistance to magic damage. You also gain added hit points for you and your pack members, and an immunity to poison and the Poisoned condition, which is a niche but useful bonus for a low Armor Class character.
Your pack members also deal magical damage by 14th level instead of 20th level, which is a useful feature as most of the fey creatures (and beasts, for that matter) don't get access to magical damage options. So if you need to crack through enemy resistances, this is one of the ways you can do it.
If you like this feel, check out the Fey Caller.
VIII. The Dragonmaster
The most daring of the alphas, dragonmasters tame dragons, drakes, wyverns, and wyrmlings in addition to beasts of all kinds. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
With access to wyrmlings, young dragons, adult dragons, and technically Ancient White Dragons and Ancient Brass Dragons (if at 20th level you only want one pack member, and if they fail to pass the save to resist your taming attempt), you get access to far more powerful creatures in this subclass than in any other subclass.
While the Bone Guardian, Marked One, and Elementalist (coming next) may dispute this claim, it's hard to dispute that this class gets wide access to flying creatures, as most larger fliers are monstrosities, not beasts. With this subclass you could easily have a flying mount, or two, or three, possibly even enough for the whole party (if all members and your game master are okay with riding wyrmlings).
You also gain various defensive bonuses, including a slight bonus to your Armor Class, resistance against breath attacks, and a limited version of the draconic Legendary Resistance special rule. So while not as defensible as the Marked One, Shapeshifter, or even possibly the Bone Guardian, the Dragonmaster is still a hearty option for the Alpha if you want one.
And as the subclass rounds out, you gain both a breath weapon and the ability to reroll damage rolls that you don't like, which is a nice way to improve upon the damage of a subclass that has access to high-damage options for pack members. If you like this, give the Dragonmaster a try.
IX. The Elementalist
An alpha that befriends and commands elemental creatures alongside wild beasts in nature, embracing the primal forces of the world to aid them in their quest. You can view the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to look over thanks to our friends at Homebrewery.
The Elementalist is not a caster like the Animist, but gets access to spell-like effects and a small selection of spells through elemental pack members. Whether you have an army of magmins that explode when they die, massive elemental forces to crush your foes, or djinn or efreeti that can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting enemy, the Elementalist sports a wide range of asymmetric tools in a fight.
At 3rd level you gain the ability to speak Primordial, and can add elementals to your pack. If you already speak Primordial, you gain the ability to spend a reaction to command your pack instead of a bonus action, freeing up some of the mobility options of the class that you might otherwise need to pass up (which your mephits and magmins will appreciate, as their hit points and Armor Class are low).
The ability to use your reaction to command pack members may be used less than you think, though, as your 6th level ability allows you to use your reaction to reduce damage, gain movement, or deal damage to opponents when they strike you. This channeling of the elemental forces roiling within you is a flavorful and fun ability, and basically guarantees that you will use your reaction in some way every round.
As you progress you may add elemental damage (that at least one pack member has) to your attacks, as can other members of your pack (albeit in smaller amounts). So while this is a smaller boost, when applied to all attacks across your whole turn (potentially 5 pack members with multiattack plus you) it adds a lot of damage to the class at mid-levels.
And at 14th level you are fully attuned with the power of the elements, increasing the DC save for your pack members (wolves knocking people down, air elementals flinging people back, djinn doing what djinn do) by 3, and the elemental damage of you and your pack members (including the ability at 11th level) also goes up by 3. So again, while it's a small bump, it actually stacks up quite a bit as you go through your turn, making for an effective damage/control bump to round out the class. If this seems appealing to you, consider running an Elementalist.
There are other ideas bouncing around for future subclasses (a fiendmaster who gets fiends and devils to follow him/her, or a servant of an old one commanding flumphs and slaadi), and in the future we may add them. But that's also why we built the Alpha: there are so many concepts that are cool to imagine but hard to make using the current canonized classes and subclasses. We hope that the Alpha has piqued your interest, and welcome you to try it out in your games and tell us what you think!
In our next D&D related post we'll probably start a new series talking about changes to spells at different levels, as I think the spells in D&D are generally very good, but there are a few outliers that are just poorly written. So we will take a brief moment to talk about those and some simple fixes you can make to spells to make them more usable in your games.
Until next time,