Should You Allow Your Players To Use D&D Unearthed Arcana?
What Is Unearthed Arcana?
Unearthed Arcana (UA), for the uninitiated, is a collection of PDF rule sets released monthly by Wizards of the Coast. They are a fantastic way to introduce new and different elements to your games; these PDFs offer new classes, subclasses, and background options for the players at the table. While these expansions are often created for players instead of the Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters), the PDFs may include a rare mechanical change such as the Greyhawk Initiative System.
The reason that Wizards of the Coast releases UA is so that the company can involve the community in the play-testing process. A large number of these options will be included in a future product after the play-testing process concludes, similar to Xanathars Guide to Everything. Because these new expansions are in the middle of this process, they are rarely fully balanced. Once these changes make their way to official D&D canon, they will differ from their UA origins.
So, should I allow my players to draw from UA? Yes, you absolutely should.
How to Implement UA
The thing to remember about UA is that these rules are optional and a Quest Master (QM) does not have to allow this content into their game. It should be noted that UA is also not legal in Adventurers League!
As a QM, and someone that runs around 50 hours of Dungeons and Dragons a month, I have had a lot of my players come to me with the latest Unearthed Arcana asking whether they can take a particular feat or background for their character. Generally, my answer is yes, as the documents often include specific ways that the UA content will interact with existing elements of the game.
A great example of this is the Mariner Fighting Style from the Waterborne Adventurers UA. This includes design notes from those involved, as well as detailed caveats for how it functions. When my Fighter came to me asking to use the mariner fighting style, having the answers to my questions already answered by the designers themselves made it much easier for me to say yes. UA expansions also inspire new ideas for me in creating NPCs or enemies, such as the Circle of Spores Druid!
Broken but Innovative
However, unrefined innovation comes at a cost. You must always keep in mind that much of the content in UA is not balanced. As such, allowing a character to play as an Artificer, which develop extra Magic Item attunement slots as they level up, may wreck the way your game functions due to an influx of high powered items. The influx of these magical items could be countered of course, by reducing the flow of magic items in your game or running a low magic setting.
Another example of this can be found in the Feats edition. I’m explicitly talking about Fell-Handed, for those using two-handed weapons. This feat allows the user to knock a target prone if they are hit with a melee attack that has Advantage. There is no size specification in the brief rules that a UA gives and means that your Dwarf Cleric can technically knock a Dragon or Giant prone with their hammer, every round! That, to me, seems like a design oversight and would be difficult to take away from a character once they have chosen the feat without making the player feel attacked or directly reduced in power level.
As such, you will need to tell them that this specific feat is not going to be allowed, even if others have been before. Or you can let them have it and set boundaries with them at the beginning. After all, you are the QM!
At Least It's Not Crazed Homebrew!
The positive takeaway from Unearthed Arcana material, when all is said and done, is that Wizards of the Coast at least brew these magical additions. In many cases, you will see the rules updated when they are officially released. Because of this eventual update, you can either tell your player that they can use UA once the material is formally published, or you can allow them to take the ability, feat or subclass, on the promise that they will update their abilities once Wizards of The Coast releases the final version.
To me, UA is a great chance to help shape the content Dungeons and Dragons crafts for the future. Test-playing offers everyone in the community an opportunity to give feedback on how the material impacted our sessions and can provide Wizards of the Coast the information they need to improve.
Not only that, but UA is often more balanced than the swathe of homebrew that exists on the internet. So much homebrew is designed, whether intentionally or not, to utterly imbalance the game and is not fit for purpose. An example would be a playable Illithid that can read minds, insta-kill enemies with a bite, and starts with psychic powers far too powerful when compared to other player races.
So with UA, at least it isn’t homebrew! There are of course good homebrews; those on the DMsGuild are often better, especially when they are produced by Matthew Mercer, as these are usually thoroughly tested before release. Third party content is, in theory, all homebrew! There are often diamonds in the rough, and an investigation check on your part can be worth it.
As a player, I love to have a vast variety of options to build my character. This is why I loved the Third Edition of Dungeons and Dragons; it had so much! When creating a character, I always ask my QM if UA is allowed and then make my character from there. Some of the ideas that I have explored through UA have been amazing, such as my Brute Fighter, an unkillable beast of a class. It was great to be able to keep using the extra damage dice to shock players mid-fight with the damage output of the subclass.
Expanding the options I have as a player, even if it unofficial, gives a massive boost to the imagination that can be put into player character creation. At the end of the day, this game is about creativity, imagination, and experimentation. As such, having UA even as an option helps expand the hobby exponentially.