What Do I Know About First Impressions? Black Flag Playtest Packet #1: Heritage and Talents
“Hm, I’m juggling two ongoing series on the blog right now. At least I’m pretty sure nothing else is going to come up and interject into those two things I’m juggling at the moment.”
“Wait, what’s this email?”
So I guess today, we’re going to break into my ongoing coverage of a few other things to take a look at the first playtest packet from Kobold Press’ Project Black Flag. This is twelve pages long and titled Playtest Packet #1: Heritage and Talents.
This playtest packet has a whole “what is a roleplaying game” section, which talks about the roles of players and game masters, as well as dice and other tools you need to play. There is also a section that explains the elements of fantasy that these rules are assuming:
- Heroic Adventures
- Unique Locations
- Power Structures and Systems
It’s basically an intro that also serves as a mission statement. It’s defining the aspects of D&D that they want to carry forward with their version of level-based fantasy. I’m curious to see how much of this makes it through as the introduction of the new game. I don’t know how many people playtesting are really in a position to say “this is a good introduction to someone that has never played a fantasy RPG before.”
It’s also worth noting that this section is using the placeholder [Core Fantasy Roleplaying] and also mentions [Core Fantasy Roleplaying] Monster Vault and [Core Fantasy Roleplaying] Game Master Guide, the latter of which it notes is helpful but not necessary. I’m wondering if we’re going to see a Pathfinder-like approach with most of the necessary GM-facing rules showing up in the core book, and the Game Master Guide is a book of advice and optional systems.
Always in Motion the Future Is
This packet describes gaining hit points and starting hit points (essentially unchanged from the 2014 rules), as well as XP versus Milestone leveling. A milestone in this case is still defined as being based on certain narrative elements coming to fruition, but it also gives the guideline that it should take one session to level up to 2nd level, two more sessions to level up to 3rd level, and then at least three sessions between each additional level gained.
The “final checklist” that runs you through what you should have at the end of character creation also mentions that your “Luck points are set to 0.” There may come a day when we know what Luck points are, and if they are replacing or supplementing Inspiration, but it is not this day.
There was a little bit of buzz online when Kobold Press asked what character generation should be by default. There was a lot of support for rolling, but a good number of people also wanted point buy and standard array. I was honestly going to be shocked if all three didn’t show up, and they do. The default character creation method that is presented is 4d6, take the 3 highest, and arrange as you like.
One place where the ability score character creation deviates is that, unlike the 2014 Player’s Handbook, the non-dice rolling methods don’t at 15. Point buy allows you to go as high as 18, and the standard array is 16, 15, 13, 12, 10, and 8. For those of you keeping track, yes, this means that you still have an ability score that you use to determine your ability score bonus, which makes sense, because the stated goal of this game isn’t to be a radically different version of d20 level based fantasy, and to be a set of rules that still works reasonably well with the 2014 D&D rulebooks.
Lineage and Heritage
Lineage is the physical characteristics that your character inherits from their parents, and heritage is what your character has learned from the society where they were brought up. You do not get any ability score bonuses for either of these aspects of character creation. In fact, there are no ability score bonuses mentioned in any section of this document in either Lineage and Heritage, or in Backgrounds. Given that the numbers for point buy and standard array cap out a bit higher than in the 2014 Player’s Handbook, I’m assuming that aspect of character creation is just gone.
I’m not particularly upset by this. I don’t mind the floating bonuses, but they do feel like a tacked-on “extra” that is a remnant of when the game attached them to something more problematic, rather than a must-have. It makes as much sense as anything to just increase your assumed baseline for ability scores.
The Lineage and Heritage packages that we see are:
While I arranged them this way, the Heritage for your character can be pulled from any of the Lineage/Heritage presentations. For example, if you want a character like Cattie-Brie from the Drizzt books, she would have a Human Lineage and a Stone Heritage. If you had a dwarf that grew up in Waterdeep, you would have a Dwarf Lineage and a Cosmopolitan Heritage.
One of the things that struck me as odd was that when WotC attempted to address some of the issues of “race” in their rulebooks, it felt like some of the corrections were more extreme. For example, it was harder to find the average range of height and weight, or how long a species lived. Those averages are just averages, so I think they help a player determine if they want to eschew or embrace those averages, as long as they aren’t presented as absolutes.
The Lineage section now includes Age, Size, Speed, and whatever other purely physical traits a species has. For dwarves, that’s Night Vision, advantage against poison and resistance to poison damage, and an additional hit point per hit die. These are explained as being biological adaptions to living underground in a dark, harsh environment with poison gas and toxic creatures. Elves, by that same token, get keen senses, magic ancestry (resistance to sleep and charm), and trance (the standard meditating for 4 hours a day, but with the noted ability to dream if you want).
Humans are always the tricky ones. Their adaptation is that you gain a talent (which is replacing feats), and a skill. This is presented as humans being driven to do more in their short lifespan. Thinking about this wording and the “drive to master something in a short time,” I would almost rather give humans the choice of a skill to add a d4 to, where they are already skilled, to represent that they may be better at it, but it’s more random, because they haven’t mastered the skill, they are just driven to do it. But humans in D&D have been mechanically “safe” since 3.5.
It is interesting that in the Heritage entry, alignment appears, but it is clearly stated that a given society has “tendencies” and that these are not inborn traits. I don’t think this is going to start feeling too sticky, until you have a heritage that “tends” to be evil. I’m not sure if this will survive, and I’m not sure I would be too upset if it went away.
One thing that I do like is that Heritage doesn’t shy away from providing some spells or resistances, because being part of that culture teaches you some magical secrets along the way, if you are from certain a certain Heritage. For example, if you grew up in a Fireforge society, you gain fire resistance. If you grew up with the Cloud Heritage, you learn how to cast spells outside of a class structure. In this instance, you can cast those spells once per long rest, and you can pick the casting stat you want to use. One thing missing from this ability, however, is the note that you can use your own spell slots to cast these spells. I don’t know if this was an intentional line that was drawn, or just something that didn’t make it into the first draft.
The Grove (Elf) and Stone (Dwarf) entries also provide some weapon and armor proficiencies, something that the newer WotC entries have shied away from (especially since those aren’t easily explained as inherited traits without leaning back into monoculture territory). I don’t mind these, but I actually wish any of the Heritages that provide weapon training or armor training would provide something like “weapon training or X,” so that characters with classes where those proficiencies do nothing for them would still get something with that feature.
My original thoughts, when I saw “talents” associated with backgrounds, were that they were going the direction I wish WotC had gone, and just provided some more mechanically expressed ability based on the background. Instead, talent is Black Flag’s new term for feats. We’ll get to that again later.
Backgrounds provide skill proficiencies, potentially tools or languages, starting equipment, a talent, and an adventuring motivation. This is more structured than the backgrounds presented in the One D&D Playtest, but still a departure from the 2014 version of backgrounds.
- Talent–in the example backgrounds (Scholar and Soldier) you get to pick from a limited list of three thematic talents
- Adventuring Motivation–This is a table of 8 different reasons someone with this background might become an adventurer
That means that Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws have been condensed somewhat to a single motivation. I’m not against this. While I like characters having all of those aspects fleshed out, I also know a lot of players that never bothered with all four, and that would be more likely to roleplay a single motivation, while giving them time to develop the rest of their personality through play.
Feats get renamed talents. You get one with your background (from a constrained list), and you can take one instead of an ability score increase when your class gives you an Improvement. One of the biggest changes in the transition from feats to talents is that talents are organized into three groups: Magic Talents, Martial Talents, and Technical Talents. The description of Talents mentions that classes may be restricted to what Talents groups they can take, and I’m interested to see what classes have access to which groups, and if any get only one or all three groups. The ones we see here are:
- Magic Talents
- Combat Casting
- Elemental Savant (added benefit of changing elemental damage to your specialization)
- Mental Fortitude
- School Specialization (+1 to hit or to your DC with your chosen school)
- Martial Talents
- Armor Training
- Armored Combatant (-PB damage from non-magical attacks)
- Combat Conditioning (+2 max hit points for each current level, ongoing upgrade to your hit dice after you take it)
- Technical Talents
- Polyglot (three extra languages, but advantage on Cha checks you make when speaking with nonhostile native speakers)
- Trade Skills
I really like school specialization, although I hope there is still the intent to design some solid “we’re not just specialists, this is what we do” wizard subclasses for things like the Diviner. I’m not sure how I feel about Elemental Savant allowing you to switch all of your damage to your favored type, but I do appreciate that you don’t get your rerolls if you have to convert a spell to that damage type. I am definitely not a fan of tracking a PC working one way up to level X, and working a different way after level Y, so I think I would rather Combat Conditioning either let you refigure your hit dice across the board, or just gave you +2 hit points per level.
While I like a lot of things I have seen in One D&D, I do have to admit that I would have liked that playtest to have started out a bit more constrained. This one is delivering on a lot of what I wanted, which is a gentle redirection of some of the rougher bits of 5e as it has developed since 2014. There are still a few bumps that I’m not sure of, and some new bumps that might have sprung up, but I like the general direction.
Things I would like to see changed or dropped:
- Alignment in the Heritage entry–I don’t think it adds more than it potentially complicates
- Additional spell that can be cast with your own spell slots–I’m a fan, and I hope this recent D&D development makes it into abilities that grant additional spells
- Weapon and armor proficiency options–I hope we see an “either-or” with these entries to make them more friendly to people who already have these proficiencies
- Human skills being more “desperate”–I know maybe this won’t appeal to everyone, but I kind of like the idea of a randomized bonus to a skill if humans are really driven to do something in a short time
- Combat Conditioning Talent–Please be less fiddly, it reminds me of tracking proficiency points before and after you multiclass in 3rd edition
I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next. What ARE Luck points anyway?
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