Do Changelings Power Creep?

On November 19, 2019, Wizards of the Coast released Eberron: Rising from the Last War. This revitalized campaign setting includes a new playable race: the Changeling.

The Changeling boasts a unique option for assigning ability scores. Due to their amorphous character, the Changeling gets +2 to Charisma and can assign a floating +1 Ability Score Improvement (ASI) to any ability score. There is no limitation on assigning this ASI. So, a player can choose to place it into Charisma and gain a total of +3 to Charisma at level 1 from their race.

This is notable because no other race allows a Player Character (PC) to invest +3 in an ability score at level 1. In the strictest sense of the word, this is “power creep” because it’s a new player option that is numerically more powerful than anything the existing published material can accomplish.

What does this mean? And is it a big deal? Let’s dig deeper.

The Problem with Power Creep

The problem with “power creep” is that you risk invalidating existing player options.

If you present players with a new option that is mechanically superior to everything published before it, then the old stuff becomes less attractive.

Even if old options are still mechanically balanced, a player who chooses not to utilize the shiny new toy will feel like they’re losing out on something.

This is bad because meaningful choices are what makes a game fun and replayable. If a Changeling is the best option for a Bard, Sorcerer, Paladin, Hexblade-dipped Fighter, etc., it dissuades players who want to try something new from going back to the other classes that want Changeling. This is going to sting more for players who prefer playing optimized builds.

Campaign Demographics

Another odd result is that the demographics of your D&D world change based on what’s most mechanically advantageous. When you play in Eberron, you might notice that all the Half-Elves, Tiefling, and Aasimar disappear because their +2 Charisma doesn’t stack up to the Changeling’s +3 Charisma.

Data from DnDBeyond shows that players definitely select a suitable race for their class’s primary ability score. Nate Silver’s 538 piece only compiled the first month of DnDBeyond character creation data (before the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything), but the results are still instructive. Here’s the ranking of racial choice among Charisma-primary classes (total characters in parentheses):

Bard

  1. Half-Elf (1,808)
  2. Human (1,454)
  3. Tiefling (806)

Sorcerer

  1. Human (1,324)
  2. Half-Elf (1,258)
  3. Tiefling (1,062)

Warlock

  1. Tiefling (2,188)
  2. Human (1,714)
  3. Half-Elf (1,401)

Do Changelings Power Creep?

Changeling ASIs

When initially released in Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron, the Changeling had +2 Charisma and a choice between +1 Dexterity and +1 Intelligence as its ability score bonuses. It’s interesting that the +2 Charisma/+1 floating ASI iteration wasn’t in the playtest, since it deviates from the existing racial design paradigm.

Now, races have had access to floating ASIs before. However, there was always some limitation that prevented the player from compiling them to get +3 to one ability score:

  • Half-Elves can invest their floating ASIs in any ability score other than Charisma. While they get a +2 Charisma bonus, it’s capped by this limitation.
  • Variant Humans can assign two floating ASIs into any ability score, but they have to be different ability scores. Since they also get access to a level 1 feat, they can take Prodigy/Actor/Resilient (CHA) for another Charisma boost, but they will still cap at +2 at level 1.
  • Simic Hybrid (from Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica) is perhaps the most thematically analogous race to the Changeling. It gets a floating ASI, which can be invested in Charisma, but its primary +2 is in Constitution. So, its racial bonus caps at +1 Charisma.

There’s a big difference between +2 and +3 because of how character creation works in 5th Edition D&D. When using point buy or standard array, the most you can get in an ability score before your racial bonuses is a 15. Since ability score bonuses increase on even numbers, you could only max out your bonus at +3, whether you boosted to 16 or 17 from your racial bonus. Since the biggest racial ASI bonus you could get is a +2, there was no way to crack an 18 at level 1 and get the elusive +4 bonus.

However, the Changeling cracks that limitation. Before the Changeling, no racial ASI spread has allowed a PC to achieve an ability score of 18 at Level 1 (when using point buy or standard array). Access to 18 Charisma at level 1 puts the Changeling ahead of other options for Charisma-dependent PCs. The problem doesn’t go away until level 8 at the earliest, since the Changeling PC can also invest their level 4 ASI into Charisma to hit the cap of 20. The Changeling stays ahead of the curve of other Charisma-based PCs.

This is especially concerning because of the numerosity and power of the character classes that rely on Charisma. Sorcerers and Bards use Charisma as their spellcasting ability score. Charisma gives the Paladin more smite slots spell slots. This is especially true when considering multiclassing. A Hexblade dip can alleviate the Multiple Ability Score (MAD) dependency of martial classes, making a Charisma min-max a very attractive option.

Non-ASI Features

We can’t analyze whether a player option is balanced unless we consider the complete package. It’s easy to be myopic and tag a new option as “power creep” when a numerical advantage sticks out like a sore thumb. Failure to consider the fringe benefits that you might be sacrificing in the process can set you up for disappointment.

So, what else does the Changeling get?

  • Standard size (medium)
  • Standard movement speed (30 feet)
  • Shapechanger
  • Changeling Instincts
  • Languages

Shapechanger is akin to the Warlock’s Mask of Many Faces invocation, which allows you to cast Disguise Self at will. The racial feature does not change your clothes, but the rest is way better. First, the change is permanent, so it can’t fail an illusion check. You can also change your voice as you choose. This talent was previously available via the Actor feat. Except the Shapechanger does not need to study the target to mimic a voice or pass a deception check to succeed.

Shapechanger isn’t the first racial feature that allows a PC to cast a spell. But, it is the first that allows the PC to cast a spell this powerful this often. A Tiefling can cast Thaumaturgy or a Drow can cast Dancing Lights every round, but those are only cantrips. When they get leveled spells from their racial features, they can only cast them once per long rest with their racial feature. This isn’t some gamebreaking advantage in combat, but it is very powerful for social encounters in the hands of the right player.

Changeling Instincts gives you proficiency in two skills among Deception, Insight, Intimidation, and Persuasion. Since all of these skills are useful in social situations, this racial feature actually turns out to be pretty powerful. The closest we have in an existing racial feature is the Half-Elf’s Skill Versatility, which allows you to pick any two skills. So, this isn’t quite unprecedented.

Outside the Half-Elf, racial features don’t often grant skill proficiencies in this way. It’s not often that a racial feature provides a choice among skills. It’s more common that a skill will be assigned to fit the theme. Consider the Elf’s proficiency in perception or the Half-Orc’s proficiency in Intimidation. Racial skill proficiencies can also be very situational, such as the Dwarf’s Stonecunning.

Languages are very accessible to the Changeling. They can learn common and their choice of two other languages. This is more than the human, who learns common and one other language. It is also more variable than the Half-Elf and High Elf, who learn common, elvish, and one other language.

Theme

Ultimately, power matters less than whether the mechanics realize the feel of the race. Breaking the mold is fine if it helps the player realize the fantasy of playing their character without compromising the fun of the other players at the table.

Everything about the Changeling screams party face. From the flat +2 Charisma, to the increased starting Charisma cap, to the very socially-driven racial features. The theme is cohesive and does a great job enabling the player to enjoy their character.

On the other hand, can we achieve that same feeling without making the race overpowered? If we can, then we should avoid using the features that can be considered power creep.

Since the Changeling is bolstered so much by its other racial features, it can likely get away without increasing the Charisma cap. Shapechanger is stronger than most spell-based racial features. Changeling Instincts is the best racial skill feature outside of Half-Elf. The language access is the best in the game.

We can see where the +3 Charisma comes into play. It’s the only mechanical benefit of the race that actually helps in combat. This concern could be addressed by giving another mechanical benefit that doesn’t upend the existing design paradigm.

Cut Content

The version of the Changeling that initially released in Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron had two additional features that didn’t appear in Rising from the Last War: Unsettling Visage and Divergent Persona.

Trimmed features are perfectly normal. Playtest content is often overbuilt and trimmed to its best elements as feedback is received. The likely result is that the feedback on these two skills was not sufficiently positive.

The problem is that the two cut features give the Changeling stuff to do outside the social pillar. Divergent Persona gives you a dynamic tool proficiency, so it’s likely to see use in the exploration pillar. Unsettling Visage gives you something to do with your reaction in the combat pillar.

While feature bloat can be undesirable, it’s a lesser evil to power creep. Having a higher base Charisma only carries flavor at the time you roll your character. After that, it’s lost in the rolls. Compare that with the player describing their gnarled appearance to impose disadvantage on an attack. Or conjuring a unique personality for a task: a prize-winning chariot racer to drive the wagon, a fletcher to whittle arrows around the campfire, a locksmith for that sticky lock, or a battlefield medic to patch up your allies.

If you’re looking to trim features, perhaps we can look elsewhere. Since Shapechanger and languages are essential to the theme of the Changeling, they’re not really candidates to be cut. Changeling Instincts could be cut or dialed back in order to preserve the features that operate in the other pillars of play. That could have minimal impact to the class overall, since the majority of the feature’s proficiencies can already be had by Charisma-based classes: Bards get access to all skills; Sorcerers get access to all four skills available via Changeling Instincts; Warlocks get access to Deception and Intimidation; Paladins get access to Insight, Intimidation, and Persuasion. The primary impact is that you’d be trimming the overall number of skills that the Changeling gets.

Solution

Overall, the Changeling appears to be balanced as a character race. This doesn’t mean that it won’t have a negative impact in terms of drawing players away from other character classes.

To shoot out the +3 Charisma boost bug light, I would do the following:

  • Half-Elf-style ASI bonus (+2 Charisma, +1 any other ability score)
  • Cut Changeling Instincts
  • Add Divergent Persona
  • Add Unsettling Visage
  • Add 1 language (common, 3 other languages)

The floating ASI is fun and gives the feeling of an adaptable being. I really like the idea of an ASI that moves with Shapechanger, but the implementation of something like that is a nightmare for pen-and-paper players. Recognizing that locking the character out of +3 Charisma makes it less powerful, we need to tweak the other features to supplement.

I cut Changeling Instincts to reduce feature bloat. Nothing in the Changeling flavor text suggests that they are necessarily more skilled than other races at social encounters. Shapechanger should already do a lot of heavy lifting for the character in terms of providing advantage in the relevant social situations.

I added Divergent Persona back, which is supported by the flavor text (see Tek, the kindly old medic). I would also be interested in seeing how a rework of this skill plays. I’d like to gain more identities as levels progress. It would also be interesting to see what other kinds of mechanical advantages you could tie into the personas.

I added Unsettling Visage back. I love the creativity it inspires from players. It’s unlikely to become overpowered because it has limited uses and reactions are valuable, so I’d include it unchanged.

I added an additional language. This adds to the flavor without significantly increasing the character’s power level. Players love getting languages and they make for excellent roleplaying opportunities. Players feel special when their character is the only one that can interact with an NPC, and it gives them an opportunity to be in the spotlight. They also appreciate the ability to have covert discussions with a language-sharing ally in the presence of dubious company.

Convergent Persona

I would consider combining Divergent Persona with Changeling Instincts and languages to reduce feature bloat while driving flavor. Here’s how it works:

Give the Changeling one persona at level 1, and additional personas at successive levels. Each time they gain a persona, they gain a tool/skill expertise and learn a new language.

Pairing a skill with a language gives each persona more character. If you’re really missing Changeling Instincts, you can open up the expertise to a social skill. It’s easy to imagine a debonair alter ego that the Changeling employs for politicking or swindling.

Combining those changes gives us the following:

Divergent Persona revised

These changes would preserve the current racial design paradigm and avoid power creep. They would also keep the Changeling class balance while giving it more stuff to do in all three pillars of play. Check out the full Changeling race redesign on the ThinkDM Patreon.

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