Back in 1985, when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was in its prime, TSR released Unearthed Arcana, a collection of supplemental rules written by Gary Gygax. It contained new races, classes, and previously published material from sources such as Dragon Magazine. The book included the first hardcover iteration of the barbarian as a class (originally detailed in Dragon #63), details on using subraces such as the drow and deep gnome (now staples of D&D 5e), and some new spells. It was unfortunately met with criticism due to its editing, binding, and some of the content within, such as the comeliness attribute. Gary intended to incorporate much of the optional content into a second edition for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, but Unearthed Arcana is the last TSR hardcover to bear his name on its cover.
Unearthed Arcana Today
Today, Unearthed Arcana (UA) is alive and well in 5th Edition D&D, though there’s no hardcover book. Instead, it takes the form of a series of articles published by Wizards of the Coast containing PDFs with new subclasses, races, or rules for D&D 5e. These articles stay true to the original Unearthed Arcana by introducing variant options for players and Dungeon Masters who want to customize their games.
Why Should I Use Unearthed Arcana?
There’s been a lot of great Unearthed Arcana coming out lately. We’ve had astral monks, a huge supplement on class feature variants, and most recently, psionics! If that’s not enough to convince you to check it out, here are a few additional reasons:
You can technically play D&D 5e using just the standard ruleset. If you’re strapped for cash but still want some new options, these playtest options slot right into the existing 5e rules without requiring access to any other published books.
You Can Shape the Future of D&D
After each Unearthed Arcana release, Wizards of the Coast puts up a survey where you can rate the options that were presented. The most recent survey is for Class Feature Variants. You can complete it here. That page also details the new psionic subclasses for the fighter, rogue, and wizard. Who doesn’t want to make their fighter the equivalent of fantasy Darth Vader?
D&D 5th Edition has seen multiple years of double-digit growth and is arguably more popular than ever. The lead designers for 5th Edition have attributed much of its success to the extensive playtesting conducted before its release. Bummed that you didn’t get to participate in the 5e playtest? Jump in now! That’s basically what Unearthed Arcana is!
Previously released Unearthed Arcana has already made its way into published books. Designers at WOTC take survey responses seriously and use them to gauge popularity, reception, and perceived balance. Based on survey feedback, they may rework UA options over multiple iterations, repackage abilities into new classes or spells, or even scrap poorly-rated options altogether.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, for example, was heavily influenced by Unearthed Arcana content. The Gloomstalker, Storm Sorcerer, Samurai, Drunken Fist, and many more options in that book all started with an article from Wizards of the Coast. I remember reading about the ceremony spell in UA back when it was first proposed. There was even an UA druid subclass that became a spell, guardian of nature!
Ever looked at an official subclass and saw something you didn’t like? Chances are you had an opportunity to voice your opinion to its designer. So, what are you waiting for? Get playtesting, and let your voice be heard!
It’s a Peek Behind the Curtain
If you’re an aspiring designer like me, you won’t regret following Unearthed Arcana. Jeremy Crawford is often talking with Todd Kenrick at D&D Beyond about the options and the philosophy behind them. Here he is talking about the massive Class Feature Variants UA that dropped recently. It’s a great opportunity to learn from lead designers like Jeremy, get new ideas, or study UA that earns multiple iterations (I’m looking at you, Revised Ranger). Plus, Todd and his guests are a delight to listen to due to their passion and humor.
Incorporating Unearthed Arcana into Your Games
So, I succeeded on my Charisma (Persuasion) check, and you’re thinking about testing some Unearthed Arcana in an upcoming session. Awesome. Start by communicating with your DM and/or players that you want to use these experimental options.
Here are a few ways to work these playtest options into your games.
One-shots are a great opportunity to feel out some new options. Especially with the holidays coming up, many of us have the chance to game with some new people – family who have never played D&D, friends you’ve not seen in a while, or a kind stranger at an unfamiliar gaming store. Alternatively, many D&D groups put games on hold due to low attendance around the holiday season. Who says you can’t still play D&D with a group of three, or even a one-on-one session? If you’re having trouble finding a group, try advertising your one-shot at your local game store or joining an online game through Roll20.
A one-shot is also a good chance for the DM to get a much-needed break. In addition, a player interested in DMing can take on the mantle in a low-pressure environment – aside from the usual stress of DMing – without committing to an entire campaign. Here’s a GM Tips video from Geek and Sundry where Matt Mercer talks about writing one-shots!
If you’re having trouble writing a one-shot, there are many great short adventures on the Dungeon Master’s Guild worthy of your table. Seriously, the quality in the Top 100 products has skyrocketed over the past year. Head over to the Guild, grab a Tier 1 or 2 one-shot, and roll up some new, no-strings-attached UA characters for single session of gaming! If you’re primarily playtesting subclasses, it’s best to find an adventure that doesn’t lean too heavily on any one pillar of play. If possible, give the subclass a chance to shine in combat, exploration, and social interaction.
Take Notes. As you play, consider taking notes on the Unearthed Arcana class, spell, or ruleset. What worked? What made you feel epic? What fell flat? How did other players feel about your character? These will be useful later when filling out the survey.
For those more interested in combat or just short on time, you can test most Unearthed Arcana using a quick series of encounters. Perhaps each player brings an UA character and an encounter with certain parameters, almost like the X-Men training in the Danger Room. You could take turns DMing a few scenarios, such as a trio of fire giants in a desert temple or a long, trapped hallway.
Remember, there is a “N/A” option on the surveys, so if you didn’t get a chance to try out an ability, you don’t have to rate it. This is a good way to test multiple UA options, but it’s probably not as fun as a dedicated session for most players.
Sometimes, an Unearthed Arcana option grabs you from the moment you read it. You’re ready for the long haul and want to play it every night for the foreseeable future.
Great! Talk to your DM. Have them read the class and tell them that you’d like to give it a proper try. Keep in mind, there’s likely to be some back and forth with your DM as you level up within the class; you or your DM may feel something is unbalanced and want to tweak it as you go.
If you choose to incorporate Unearthed Arcana into a campaign, remember that the surveys only last a few weeks! After you’ve had a couple sessions with the new rules, don’t forget to go back and fill out the survey before it’s too late. In addition, check in from time to time. The rules may have been updated based on previous survey responses.
Where Can I Find Unearthed Arcana?
There may never be another Unearthed Arcana hardcover, but the spirit of the original book is alive and well in 5th Edition. I think people weren’t ready for Gary Gygax’s variant rules in 1985. Sure, there might have been some obscure ones (did we really need a Thief-Acrobat?), but they were always meant to be optional. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like most D&D players today are willing to tinker, house-rule, and experiment. Perhaps it’s due to the variety of available TTRPGs or the renaissance of new board games, many of which bring unique and brilliant mechanics. Either way, I think Gary would be proud.
Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contracts, or Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.