D&D Class: The Alpha
This post will be the first in a two-part series discussing a new class that I've designed for Dungeons & Dragons. There are a lot of homebrew classes out there, and I confess that when I first got started on the path of designing D&D content to allow for more diverse playing styles I had not envisioned creating my own class, as I didn't want to be one of "those people" who make a class that is basically another class but with a bit of flare.
But my mind kept coming back to a character concept and play style that I've always loved (and have played multiple times in Zurn, and seen played multiple times in Zurn by my players), and after looking at the classes and subclasses that exist there really isn't a substitute for it (Beastmaster Ranger included).
So I made one. And over the past few months the class and nine distinct subclasses came into being.
It was going to be called the "Pack Leader," but upon talking with a friend of mine she recommended the name "Alpha," and as the building process went on I was glad for the name change, as it had less of an "animal" feel which opened up new avenues for vivid and unique subclasses.
This post will discuss the primary class, while the next post will discuss the subclasses. It will also serve as a guide for the character concept we are trying to convey, giving you more ideas for potential subclasses of your own creation. We hope you enjoy it!
The Alpha: Theme and Inspiration
The alpha, as was noted above in the initial naming scheme, is a pack leader: a man or woman who has typically left the society of people in favor of the society of beasts, embracing them as their new family. The class centers around the use of companions to augment damage capability and provide useful actions to aid both the alpha and the adventurer party.
The closest character concepts already existing in the game were the Nature Domain Cleric (as it has the ability to charm beasts with its Channel Divinity and dominate a single beast with a 4th level spell for 1 hour) and of course the Beastmaster Ranger (who has one companion), though in both cases the subclasses fell short of the concept. In the former instance the creatures are only charmed or controlled for a short period of time (1 minute and 1 hour respectively), so there is no lasting bond inherent in the rules or mentioned in the Dungeon Master's Guide.
For the Beastmaster Ranger (a subclass that has taken a lot of heat in 5th Edition, and is arguably the weakest subclass in the game), the "pack" is limited to one beast, and that one beast is rather limited in what it can do, most notably that it loses its Multiattack ability if it has one. The companion bond for the beastmaster is also more mystical, and not what we were aiming for, as you can bring your furry friend back from the dead every night, and we were looking for something more organic and less magical for the 1st level ability of the class (subclasses and 20th level abilities delving into this are fine).
Now, before we move into mechanics, it is worth noting that it was not our goal to make a new class that was outright better at taming creatures and commanding them than these two subclass builds. While Nature Domain Clerics (my favorite build in the game) may not have the ability to permanently make friends, they can target a large swath of creatures with a single action, which is nothing to sneeze at and a very effective way to deal with cavalry forces charging you. Their ability also works against plants as early as 2nd level, which is a useful feature.
Similarly the Beastmaster Ranger can give its companion a host of attacks so long as it is surrounded by foes (or if you give it your actions, if you are using the variant in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything), and the companion also increases its hit dice and base stats over time (which the alpha's pack does not do). So against higher level targets the beastmaster's companion will likely be more useful than the alpha's pack, and can "tank" for the ranger far more effectively over time.
But we did want to capture the concept of a person running with a pack of animals that are loyal to the group, filling various roles and meeting needs through the use of their inherent beastly nature, and for that a new class was needed. And that was the inception of the Alpha.
The Alpha: Mechanics
You can find the details of the class here, easily printable for your game master to consider if desired thanks to the team at Homebrewery. The class is a martial class that centers around agility, mobility, and an overwhelming number of attack actions to compensate for weak defense and hit points. As noted above, the alpha also lacks the ability (until 20th level) to bring back fallen pack members, which will play a factor into the challenges of the class below.
To start off (and we'll keep the discussion of abilities short, as you can read along on the document to see the specifics), you get three abilities at 1st level: Tame Creature (which is your primary way of adding pack members without spending gold to buy a dog or cat or horse or whatever in a town), Pack Members (which lays out the rules for commanding pack members with your bonus action), and Unarmored Defense (just like the barbarian's unarmored defense, not the monk's). You are relatively fragile as you have limited armor options and a d8 hit die, but if you and your pack gang up on a target at early levels you should survive long enough to accrue a decent number of hit points. You may need to replace pack members along the way, but you will have better chances of surviving to call up those members.
Your pack can also consist of a wide variety of creatures. The class notes the "Disney Princess" build as a possible idea, building off of Aurora, Cinderella, Pocahontas, and Giselle, who gather various creatures to aid them. Some subclasses even allow you to add non-beast creatures to your pack, adding greater versatility and utility for the adventuring party. So if you don't want to buy horses, have your alpha go out and find some deer for you (or heck, go find some wild horses, as horses generally have a low CR if it's not a warhorse).
As you progress you gain abilities like Pack Chasing that increase the speed of you and your pack and Pack Agility which allows you or your pack members the Dodge or Disengage actions as a bonus action for the turn. It is important to note that it is not a bonus for both you and your pack, as commanding your pack members and taking the action are both bonus actions, so you will need to choose between giving your beasts actions for the turn or taking one of these actions yourself (which is an intentional design element for game balance, as you and five creatures all attacking and disengaging in a single turn is ridiculously broken). There are two exceptions to this among the subclasses (though the tradeoff is that their packs often have less attacks and hit points), but on the whole your bonus action is going to be the short resource, constantly being fought over by competing interests.
Some of the subclasses also increase your speed, so you are a very mobile character who can outrun most foes in the game (assuming you are not fighting a monk or rogue), which will help you with your average hit die and mid-range Armor Class.
You also gain Extra Attack at 5th level (like other martial classes), and you gain Pack Tactics and Vicious Assault to increase your damage capability to keep you up to par with the other martial classes. So while you are limited in your ability to take damage, you actually deal quite a bit of damage between you and your pack member attacks, so you need to take down enemies before they incapacitate you.
Your character also has some utility options. As you reach the higher levels you gain Pack Call which allows you to communicate with your pack and other beasts more effectively, and you also gain Fill with Terror to inflict the Frightened condition on your enemies when you or a pack member damages them, adding control elements to the class. You also gain Shadow Walker late in the game, adding to your ability to sneak up on your targets to hunt them.
The class caps out, as has been hinted at before, at 20th level with Eternal Pack, which is the capstone for the class. As the class description notes, "Pack members grow, and pack members die. But the pack endures forever." This ability brings this to its fullness, with dead pack members being able to be summoned at the end of a long rest, allowing their spirits (which can now fly and deal magical damage) to join you in the fight, returning to serve the pack.
The class is vivid and flavorful, naturally encouraging opportunities for roleplaying and character description as you advance. If this is something you enjoy, check out this class and ask your DM if you can use it. If you or your DM have questions, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by chat at facebook.com/ZurnCentral.
Challenges for the Alpha
You have four primary challenges when playing an alpha, all of which can be covered by the party save one, though that one is less of an issue because of the way that D&D adventuring works, and is slightly covered by the mechanics of the class. The first is survivability, as you are a low armor class with low hit points that does not innately have access to shields (you do gain access through a subclass). While most of the other martial classes get a d10 or d12 for their hit die, you are like the monk in only having a d8 hit die. That is fragile for a frontline fighter, though the class can also perform well at range. Add onto this the general fragility of your beasts (especially at higher levels), and this is an issue you will need to consider.
Second, your bonus action becomes something of an issue with this class. A lot of your abilities trigger off of a bonus action (and typically more once you add in your subclass features), so keep in mind that you will always have more to do with your bonus action than you can actually take. So strategy becomes an important thing for your turns: what is most important this turn for you to do?
Third, your limitation on pack commanding to a number of beasts equal to your Wisdom modifier means that you will always have an issue of wanting to control more pack members than you are capable of commanding in the span of six seconds (1 round) unless you are relying on a small band of stronger pack members. You will be torn between dealing damage to people near you, moving pack members to protect other vulnerable members of the party, and moving the pack to protect other pack members (or escape for a pack member that might be in trouble).
And finally, the issue of money and opportunity becomes an issue. If your DM is not a DM who enjoys using beasts, your primary way of getting creatures (taming them in the wild) will be replaced with buying dogs, cats, horses, tigers, etc. in a town, and that means that if a pack member dies (before 20th level), replacing them can be hard. Naturally you should talk with your DM to see if they are open to doing more with beasts if you are planning to play this class, but if you come across an issue of not having beasts to tame to replenish the pack, this could dramatically reduce the effectiveness of the class in and out of combat.
So our recommendation for game masters is that you take into consideration access to beasts (or appropriate creatures that the subclass can tame) to replenish losses that your alpha may suffer, if not also provide creatures that they can tame that may force them to let some pack members go to accommodate a new (and powerful) beast as this makes the choices for the player more interesting.
There is technically a fifth challenge for alphas that has less to do with design and more to do with story and personal things, and that is the issue of heartache. Your pack members, being beasts + something else for specific subclasses, don't have great hit points and that means there is a decent chance that your friends in your pack will die as the campaign progresses (even in a one-shot campaign there's a good chance of this). They can use their hit die during a short rest to recover hit points, but they don't tend to have a lot of those, and their Armor Class is relatively weak.
So keep in mind that, if you play an alpha, you may need to bury a friend. And that can be hard for people. Unlike the Beastmaster Ranger who can resummon their ally from the dead, you don't get that ability with the alpha until 20th level. So steel your mind toward this fact: you will likely lose a friend or two (maybe more) in your quest. And make those moments memorable and touching.
The alpha has its weaknesses just like any other class. It's not built to be the best or strongest class ever, but it is built to be vivid and inspiring, opening up the mind to consider a new concept that is present in literature but hard to replicate with the canon of classes and subclasses currently released. We hope that you enjoy it, and welcome your thoughts on this class!
In our next post we will briefly walk through our ideas for the nine subclasses we have created so far for the alpha, so stay tuned!
Until next time,