On May 23, 2022, Wizards of the Coast released the Giant Options Unearthed Arcana (UA), featuring the Path of the Giant Barbarian. This fun subclass contains a mass of giant-flavored options, including size scaling. But, it also claims some features that should be more freely available, instead of being locked into a single subclass.
What Is Pigeonholing?
Each character element has a budget for complexity and power. Unique features can be identifying characteristics for a character choice. However, designers need to be careful not to sequester basic competencies. You don’t want a situation where a player asks “can I do X?” and their imagination is limited by another class’s abilities, instead of the parameters of the scenario.
Uniqueness isn’t the only thing that makes a feature interesting. It’s cool when the Giant Barbarian gets big. It’s also cool when a spellcaster casts Enlarge. It’s cool² when they interact! The best features capture their own identity while interacting with others in fun ways.
Let’s explore examples of subclass features that should be generally available at the class level, at the martial level, and at the character level. Since two of these come from the Giant Barbarian, it makes a good case study.
Early commentary around the Giant Barbarian subclass has focused on the Rage benefits from Giant’s Havoc. Specifically, folks feel that all barbarians should get Crushing Hurl, which allows you to add your Rage damage to STR-based thrown weapon damage:
It just makes sense.
The Giant Barbarian isn’t the first time D&D has gated martial power behind a specific subclass. During the dndnext playtest that preceded 5th Edition, Battle Master maneuvers were taken from martial characters and pigeonholed into a fighter subclass. While non-Superiority Dice versions of several maneuvers are available in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), they often go unnoticed as optional rules or abandoned in parties where they are viewed as stepping on the Battle Master’s toes. Ultimately, this move created more design space for martials to emphasize their own unique traits. Though there’s a fair argument that 5e’s martials have space for both.
In some cases, a feature does something that any character should be able to do. The Giant Barbarian’s Mighty Impel is the equivalent of the famous “fastball special” where the X-Men’s Colossus throws Wolverine into combat:
The Giant Barbarian executes this trick by throwing an ally (or enemy who fails their strength save) 30 feet away:
Player Characters have been doing this since the dawn of time.
The barbarian throwing their buddy into combat shouldn’t be limited to one subclass. Nor should it be unavailable until level 10. It’s a common power fantasy.
You could probably waste a lot of time figuring out how far one character could throw another by extrapolating from the Strength score’s push/drag/lift mechanics and blending them in with the long jump rules. But, that’s some really fuzzy math.
What D&D really needs is a standard rule for throwing friends and foes. One that gets better when it interacts with the elements of the Giant Barbarian, like getting bigger!
The key change is the tie-in to grappling. This does a few things. First, it makes the move trivial for allies, but harder against foes. Second, it adds an action economy cost that makes the “fastball special” a good candidate for an ambush and non-combat, while decreasing the risk of cheesing it every round. Third, it cures the problem with swarms and ghosts (more on that later).
I also modified the saving throw to emulate a “passive athletics” score. While assuming proficiency may be thematically appropriate for a Giant Barbarian, the lay character should operate as closely as possible to grappling mechanics. I’ve still kept the saving throw over grappling’s blended Acrobatics/Athletics check for simplicity’s sake, but you may find it easier in practice to just roll another grapple check. Be aware that this might nudge players towards multiclassing for Athletics expertise.
What About Mighty Impel?
If we’re going to give the “fastball special” to every character, then how do we keep Mighty Impel feature interesting for the Giant Barbarian?
You can always make a feature interesting by making it easier or better. In some ways, Mighty Impel already is.
Action Economy. Mighty Impel is already easier to use than throwing an ally, since it only takes a bonus action! Plus, if your table is allowing ally-tossing as a full action, now you can do it twice!
Check vs. Save. Depending how you draft the feature, you can give opponents more options that affect the likelihood of success. For example, modeling after grappling mechanics with a check gives the defender the option of using Acrobatics or Athletics. Limiting these choices, or bypassing skill proficiencies for saves, can impact how the feature plays against different monsters. This can dial the power up or down, circumstantially. You can also tweak the save DC by adjusting the flat bonus (8 vs. 10) and adding/removing proficiency.
Distance. The most obvious option for increasing power level is increasing the distance. You can add a flat amount (+10′) or a multiplier (doubling is typically easiest).
Damage. You can also dial the damage knob. Add a free die of damage every time a hostile target hits a wall/ceiling/floor before the distance runs out. I’d probably use a d6 since it models off of falling damage, which can also come into play.
Bypass Immunity. As pointed out by Steve Fidler of Vorpal Dice Press, the Mighty Impel feature works against ghosts! While this is one method for increasing power level, it should be employed where thematically appropriate (e.g. telekinesis). Since Mighty Impel is a Strength-based feature, I would expect this to receive a revision before printing that exempts incorporeal creatures and swarms.
In any case, Mighty Impel would need to be rewritten to account for all PCs having access to fastball special. If some of that complexity is offloaded to a general mechanic, you can tweak a few of these knobs with a relatively brief subclass feature.
How you you run Fastball Special? Let us know in the comments below. To read about how I’d change Mighty Impel, head over to the ThinkDM Patreon for more discussion!