Unearthing Elf Subraces

Elves that can take to the sky on wings they are born with. Elves that view even other elves with suspicion, sticking to the deep forests of Greyhawk. Elves that took to the oceans instead of the forest, following currents instead of wooded paths. Elves that swore service to the Raven Queen, now wreathed in the darkness of the Shadowfell. There has always been more than just one variety of elf in Dungeons and Dragons, and with the latest Unearthed Arcana a lot more of them are coming out of the woodwork (or the sky, or the sea, or a plane of shadow) to take their shot at being options for player characters in 5th Edition!

Unearthed Arcana: Elf Subraces gives immediate credit to the positive reception that the Eldarin received a few months ago. If not for those fey, seasonally-changing elves going over so well we probably wouldn’t have seen this batch of new subraces and . . . that kind of shows. It might be telling that unlike the Eladrin and the Fiendish Options entries, there’s no D&D Beyond video to accompany it. It could be that Mearls and Crawford are just too busy to sit down for a chat with Xanathar’s Guide coming into the world and PAX Unplugged happening this week, but between that and the Eladrin dropping not so long ago it does sort of give the impression that this one had a shorter life cycle. But enough about design schedule speculation, let’s get to the details!

Avariel

Winged elves that have become something of an endangered species over the centuries thanks to conflicts with dragons, the avariel still maintain colonies here and there on the Material Plane and the Plane of Air. Choosing the avariel subrace grants the character a flight speed of 30′, which can’t be used if the character is wearing medium or heavy armor, and the ability to read, write, and speak Auran.

And that’s it.

No extra proficiencies, no ability modifier, nada. Presumably that’s to balance out the ability to fly all the time . . . but the aarakocra from the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion has a better fly speed and they still get a second ability modifier, some talons, and even an extra language, so that doesn’t quite track, especially as having a flight speed in the first place might not even be useful all of the time.

Honestly, to me this one is kind of a dud. As we’ll see every other subrace in the article has the usual number of features, so it’s almost like they scribbled in the wings because ‘duh, winged elves’ and then forgot to go back and finish the avariel.

Grugach

Reclusive elves from the world of Greyhawk, the grugach are a subrace that actually makes ‘reclusive elves’ not repetitive. They want outsider problems to remain outside, but at least don’t want to make their own problems anyone else’s, and are fiercely territorial. They gain +1 Strength, some Weapon Training that makes them proficient with the spear, shortbow, longbow, and net, a druid cantrip of their choice, and the ability to speak/read/write Sylvan instead of Common.

Pretty solid all around. The +1 Strength doesn’t quite jive with most of the grugach weapon proficiencies, but it still opens up other options. The proficiencies in question fit the flavor text, particularly the net, when it comes to the grugach love of ambushing and trapping intruders. The druid cantrip fits right in.

Being able to speak Sylvan, and explicitly not being able to speak Common, fits the theme perfectly. If it was a monster type, no other words on it. But it’s a player character option, and thus not being able to communicate with the majority of other characters is a bit of a problem that the DM or players will have to work around (by carefully choosing bonus languages/backgrounds to receive such, handwaving the whole thing, etc.).

Sea Elf

While other elves took to the forest the sea elves took to the ocean depths, and to this day explore the currents and maintain small communities in the Material Plane and the Plane of Water. They gain +1 Constitution, Weapon Training that grants proficiency with spear, trident, light crossbow, and net, a swim speed of 30′ and the ability to breath both air and water, the ability to speak with Small or smaller creatures with a swim speed of their own, and the ability to speak/read/write Aquan.

With the communication issue of the grugach absent the sea elf seems like an even more solid choice. Constitution is always great to have, the weapons fit the usual aquatic warrior image, they don’t receive any penalties for being on land, and Friend of the Sea is a cool little thematic ability. You’ll want to have some watery adventures or dungeon areas to let them really shine, but those aren’t too hard to pull off. Put it in the win column.

Shadar-kai

Elves that made their way into the Shadowfell long ago, the Shadar-kai have sworn service to the Raven Queen and have been deeply changed by both their surroundings and their patron. They gain +1 Charisma, a cantrip of their choice from chill touch, spare the dying, or thaumaturgy, and Blessing of the Raven Queen: they can, as a bonus action, teleport up to 15′ and gain resistance to all damage until the start of their next turn, once per rest.

I didn’t expect to see the Shadar-kai here; they made it to player character status in 4th Edition (via a Dragon article, I believe), but I could have sworn they were descended from humans back then. Other than that, though, they feel pretty familiar!

The Charisma fits, the cantrip works given their shadowy home and patron, and the Blessing of the Raven Queen is their signature ability. What’s missing, though, is some type of Weapon Training: the Shadar-kai were notorious for being a little quirky in their armament choices, commonly seen with katars or spiked chains and the like, and that would be nice to see here.


Overall, if I was grading this Unearthed Arcana I’d give it an average grade. There’s some cool options, but most of them need to be given a few tweaks, and the avariel straight up needs to be sent back to the drawing board. If you really want to see any of these options hit the table, of course, then playing with them is good and responding to the survey that should drop soon is even better. Got thoughts of your own? Then let us know in the comments!

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