We have a new subclass out today: The Blight Caller, a Ranger Archetype for D&D 5th Edition!
You can grab a copy of the subclass for yourself here, but we also wanted to walk through our design philosophy with this subclass. There's a lot of fun stuff happening here that lets the Blight Caller fill a niche that is atypical for 5e rangers, so let's dive in!
Part of designing your own player content for D&D (or any TTRPG) is figuring out the fantasy of what you are trying to achieve. I.e. what archetype, trope, or iconic identity are these mechanics meant to represent? For example, the Divination wizard is your oracular, fortune-telling sage, while your Circle of the Moon druid is the classic shapeshifting, animalistic nature warrior.
The fantasy we wanted to deliver on with the Blight Caller was a partner subclass to the Circle of Spores druid. Both are focused on the "darker" parts of nature: rot, fungi, diseases, and death. More precisely, both heavily emphasize the notion that death is a natural and inevitable part of life. The Circle of Spores druid takes a more sagely approach to these teachings, dipping into the study of undeath as a part of the life-and-death cycle, while also using the decomposer organisms to deal damage to their enemies and transform their physique.
Our take on the ranger version is focused on being a more "practical magic" shepherd of life and death; someone that is straddling that line to determine who's death can wait for tomorrow, and who must return to the soil today. Part of this narrative was guided by our desire to provide mechanics that allowed rangers to step into an often neglected role: the healer.
What We *Didn't* Do
Since the core ranger class gives players plenty of tools for direct damage, the "death" part of that equation is largely covered, giving us room to focus the subclass features on healing. That doesn't mean that there are no offensive capabilities, but that we didn't want to have yet another ranger subclass that grants some sort of "deal extra damage on hit" effect. Seriously, almost every official ranger subclass in the last few years has had some version of "once on your turn when you hit with a weapon attack, deal extra damage."
And those features make sense. They are meant to de-emphasize hunter's mark as the usual avenue for rangers to get more damage, giving them opportunities to use their concentration for more interesting or niche effects. But Fey Wanderer, Gloom Stalker, Horizon Walker, Monster Slayer, Swarmkeeper... they are all basically doing different cosplays around the same mechanic of adding some number of dice to the ranger's weapon attacks. We wanted to do more interesting things and have the Blight Caller's power shine in different ways so it could stand apart while also offering players a new, novel experience in 5e.
Mechanics of Life & Death
So how do we give the ranger compelling offensive features that aren't the same once-per-turn burst damage effects while also delivering on the under-represented "healer" archetype?
The basic engine of this is provided by the three features the subclass provides at level 3:
Versed in Virulence
This feature provides the standard additional spells for the subclass while also granting proficiency in the herbalism kit and poisoner's tools. These proficiencies give the ranger some cool roleplay and exploration utility while also fulfilling the narrative that these warriors are skilled in cultivating diseases, handling dangerous materials, and using those materials for both healing and damage. And the expanded spell list includes several spells that aren't just appropriately "kill-y", but also synergize well with the next feature.
Here's where the healer archetype comes in strong.
You can infuse your magic with spores that numb pain and strengthen the body. Whenever you target a creature (including yourself) with one of your ranger spells, you can choose to give that creature temporary hit points equal to five times the level of the spell slot expended. Only one creature can benefit from this effect per spell.
Often healing in 5e is perceived as "useless" until a creature is at 0 hit points since you are just as effective at 100 HP as you are a 1. Hit points are largely binary, with healing rarely able to keep pace with higher level damage totals.
Temporary HP is a fantastic mechanic for increasing the power of healing without wildly over-tuning it. Because it can't stack with itself or other temporary HP sources, the feature is powerful without making the Blight Caller suddenly a stronger healer than Life Clerics or other raw-HP based healers. It also fits in well with a ranger's spell list since the effect triggers not only on healing spells, but any spell that targets a creature. This synergizes well with healing word and blur; two subclass-specific spells.
For example, you can set yourself up as a good tank by casting blur on yourself and getting 10 extra hit points against anything that manages to hit you. And healing word is not only giving the ranger access to low-level, long-distance healing (which they normally lack), but the extra temp HP make it more likely to protect an ally against more than one hit. This kind of spell-slot efficiency really shines with the half-caster ranger while never being so powerful that it suddenly outpaces full-caster healing builds.
Healing is great, but it's not always going to be necessary (or fun). While we didn't want the Blight Caller to be just another "+1d8" damage dealing subclass, we still wanted to provide players with a fun offensive capability. And the lore of being someone adept at using diseases, poisons, and decomposing magics to augment your mundane weaponry offered a really cool design space to operate.
The Infected Weaponry feature gives you access to four different effects that you can apply to a target when you hit them with a weapon attack: Rot Moss slowly eats away at the enemy, dealing 1d4 necrotic damage at the start of their turns, and it can be applied multiple times for more damage in prolonged engagements; Festering Pox debuffs the target so they can't regain hit points - an excellent counter to creatures like trolls and hydras without needing a precise damage type; Pale Strangler is a bizarre plant that debuffs your target's physical ability checks, setting them up for punishment on other turns; and Green Fever inflicts poison damage and the powerful poisoned condition.
These options are limited to a number of uses equal to your Wisdom Modifier plus your Proficiency Bonus, but you can regenerate all of the uses when you finish a Short Rest. We felt like this was a nice change-up from the typically long-rest focused ranger class, and it also gives you a "just right" feeling with the number of uses. The ability is "spammable" when you really want to apply a lot of effects (since it's not limited to once per turn, so it stacks well with Extra Attack), but you could still run out in a particularly busy adventuring day.
At Higher Levels...
Those three features - Versed in Virulence, Bolstering Spores, and Infected Weaponry - form the core subclass features that deliver on the "death shepherd" fantasy archetype we set out to accomplish. You have the ability to do a lot of healing, both permanent and ablative, even if you aren't performing a "healing spell". You can also distribute powerful debuffs to weaken your enemies, or kill them outright with the inevitability of damage-over-time effects.
At higher levels the features continue to deliver on these themes.
At 7th level you gain resistance to poison and necrotic damage, as well as becoming immune to disease and the poisoned condition. Disease immunity is extremely rare, but potentially powerful when you are in a campaign or facing enemies that focuses on these themes. Poison and necrotic damage are extremely common, giving the Blight Caller some valuable resilience throughout all levels of play. Between the Bolstering Spores and these resistances, you can become an extremely effective tank.
11th level focuses on shoring up the one weakness of Infected Weaponry, which is that you are investing limited use abilities on effects that likely won't last very long. It would be a shame to apply three instances of Rot Moss to a creature only to have it die before the start of its next turn. With Spread the Sickness, you gain a reaction to carry over your Infected Weaponry effects from one target to the other whenever a target dies. You choose on active effect, and it jumps over to a new creature within 30 feet of the one that died. If you select Rot Moss, half the stacks (rounded up) instantly effect the new target. This adds some powerful efficiency to your kit, and also makes it less penalizing to invest multiple uses on a single target in what can often be short combats.
The capstone at level 15 is Mycorrhiza Medicine, a powerful action that can be done once per long rest (or recharged with a 4th level spell slot) to cure all manor of ailments. You can basically choose between a bunch of greater restoration style effects, or you can provide a creature with regeneration-like healing over time. Both can be invaluable pieces in a healer's bag of tricks, and they are providing powers that typically fall outside of a ranger's strengths.
As with all of our Day 20 subclasses, we wanted to provide some bonus content that can be used by Game Masters to include the themes / mechanics of the Blight Caller in their games even if no players choose to use the subclass.
The module includes a Blight Caller NPC stat block - a CR 6 humanoid that brings the same style of abilities to bear. Useful as an ally or enemy, their diseased longbow and fungal falchion will wreak havoc on their enemies. After afflicting targets with Verdant Rot or points of decay, the blight caller can use their Decomposing Surge bonus action to inflict a ton of damage, possibly refreshing the ability if it puts a creature to 0 HP.
It also includes a Malignant Weapon magic item. While this rare weapon embodies the themes of decay present in the rest of the module, it can actually be used by any spellcaster, granting them access to something akin to a "dark smite" ability. When you hit a creature, you can expend a spell slot to deal additional poison or necrotic damage to them, and they take even more damage if they are suffering from a disease or the poisoned condition. It doesn't do quite as much damage as a paladin's divine smite (just so we aren't stepping on any holy toes), but it's still a really fun way to capture that same feeling without multiclassing. And while it can be used by any spellcaster, it's a great boon for your party's Blight Caller ranger, who don't have the same spell slot flexibility as paladins.
Go Forth and Infect!!!
If these mechanics sound exciting to you, go and pick up your copy of The Blight Caller today!