What Do I Know About First Impressions? Project Black Flag Playtest Packet #2, Part One
There is a lot of playtesting going on these days. Not only is there a lot of playtesting, across multiple games, doing similar things in different ways, but a lot of this design has my head spinning and wanting to do a deeper dive into why some of this design is trending. That means it takes me a little bit longer to digest what’s really going on in the playtest to make sure I don’t miss anything.
One D&D and Project Black Flag
I really want the process of looking at this material to take the material on its face, and to respect the material by not always framing it in terms of other game material. Except that’s really hard to do when you have two versions of the rules that are being developed, both ostensibly being backward compatible with the version of D&D represented in the 5e SRD, but doing so with different goals.
While I want to make all of my commentary based on my impressions of the material at hand, there are a few places where it’s just not possible to divorce the design decisions from the context of what’s going on with One D&D.
I’ve been trying to make sure that I spend time in actual, at the (virtual) table playtesting with One D&D. I have currently run playtests with all of the classes and most of the species in the playtest, at 3rd, 6th, and now 10th level. I’m planning on doing something similar with Project Black Flag material, so that not everything is based only on how I read the documentation. I’ll let everyone know when I have something to say about that as well.
Some Trending Semi-Similarities
Before I dig into exactly what’s in this document, I wanted to touch base on what is similar between One D&D and Project Black Flag, and my general mindset regarding those similarities. I like to wear my preferences on my sleeve, so if you don’t have the name nagging hangups that I do about some of these things, please keep that in mind when looking at my takeaways versus your own feeling about this material.
Proficiency Bonus. This started well before this playtest, but D&D 5e design has moved towards handing out abilities that are available based on the character’s proficiency bonus rather than their ability score is a through line in both playtests. Both have recently been addressing the limitations of using proficiency bonus in different ways. For example, a few of Project Black Flag designs are using (PB + X) instead of just proficiency bonus. Other than noting this, I’m not too upset by this. I get that using an ability bonus is going to have wildly different results in availability.
Spell Lists. One D&D moved away from individual class lists, towards grouping spells into Arcane, Primal, and Divine, and then giving different classes access to one of these spell lists. Additionally, where it limits access to these spell lists, often classes receive access to a spell list, but only by accessing a subset of spells represented by spell schools. It looks like there will be some of this in Project Black Flag as well, with spells being grouped into Arcane, Divine, Primordial, and Wyrd. In the playtest, there is a subclass that gets access to Arcane spells, but only two spell schools until 8th level.
In general, I think that this is efficient, but maybe not as player-friendly as having class spell lists. It is going to be easier to develop spells and put them in a large meta-grouping, and to have classes reference those meta-groupings. Not only do I think that makes things a little more intensive for players needing to reference those very efficiently summarized rules, I also think it may take away some precision design tools that you could use by making tailored spell lists that can’t just be created by intersecting source with school.
Standardized Subclass Levels. One D&D has decided every class has subclass features at the same levels. I don’t know if Project Black Flag has decided to do this as well, but there is a hint that it may be in the cards, because instead of gaining a subclass at 2nd level, the wizard gets their subclass at 3rd level. It’s still possible that Project Black Flag may be pushing things towards 1st or 3rd, since the Druid and the Wizard were outliers with 2nd level subclasses, but we don’t know for sure.
Does it make more sense for subclasses to line up at the same levels for everyone? Yeah, it does. Is it worth both the design effort it takes to convert that game to this paradigm, and either the design effort or player/DM effort it will take to convert material that is only sort of backward compatible because of this change?
I’m not sure it is. Smoothing out rough spots in the rules really should be about rules that actually cause issues, and the only real issue that non-standardized subclasses cause is clean design presentation. If you were building a game from scratch that doesn’t have backward compatibility as a goal, at all, yes, please, make it make sense. But ostensibly both One D&D and Project Black Flag have backward compatibility at some level of importance in their design goals. Unless you really want class-agnostic subclasses to be a design space where you are going to spend a lot of effort, I’m not sure “it looks better in retrospect” is a good reason for the effort.
Okay, But What’s In This Packet?
Okay, now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, this packet is looking at the following things:
- The Luck Mechanic (replacing inspiration, or heroic inspiration, or heroic advantage)
- The Fighter Class (up to 8th level)
- The Spell Blade Discipline
- The Weapon Master Discipline
- The Wizard (up to 8th level)
- The Battle Mage Arcane Tradition
- The Cantrip Adept Arcane Tradition
- Talents (some new, some reprinted)
- Spellcasting (general overview of spells and groupings, new rules for ritual spells, etc.)
Luck is addressing two different goals. It’s trying to solve for the less than exciting effect of spending Inspiration and then failing, or even succeeding on both dice, and it’s trying to install a “fail forward” mechanic in combat for D&D.
Once per turn, when you fail an attack roll or a saving throw, you get a Luck point. You can spend Luck 1 for 1 to raise the total of your roll, or you can spend 3 Luck points to roll another die and take the highest roll. Whatever you do, you have to decide before the DM tells you if the roll failed.
You can only ever have 5 luck points. If you get a 6th luck point, you have to roll a d4, and that’s your new Luck total, thus keeping you from banking too many points and convincing you to use your Luck on a regular basis. You can’t use Luck on a roll of 1, and if you didn’t roll a natural 20 on your roll, if you bump up your total, it never counts as a natural 20.
D&D 5e has a whole lot more for players to do in combat than in previous editions, and it has a lot fewer “gotcha” moments where you think you can take an action that has no chance to succeed. Bounded accuracy, the idea that the bottom range and the top range of target numbers never get too far apart, also helps with this concept. But I know there are people that sometimes get very frustrated with not doing anything in a round.
What I worry about with this mechanic revolves around the following aspects of it:
- People that get multiple attacks per attack action, or multiple attacks with a spell, can fail, get a Luck point, and still also succeed, in the same turn, and those characters are more likely to get Luck than a character that can only make one roll per turn
- For any effect where a PC can’t roll a save on their turn to end a condition, characters that get locked down for a period of time are going to be way more frustrated than PCs that can take actions and then miss
- Characters that get frustrated at spending Inspiration and failing are going to still be pretty frustrated if they said they are spending Luck and miss the total they should have spent my 1, or spend five points on a roll they only needed a single point to push into a success
This is actually a rule that’s pretty easy to playtest in a regular D&D game even without engaging with the rest of this, so I may ask my players about trying it out. My personal feelings, before playtesting it, is that I would rather do the following:
- Change the name to Fate because the best use of this isn’t randomized
- Get rid of spending three points to roll an additional die
- Let PCs spend Fate to make up for a roll after they know they failed (another good reason to call it Fate), and remove the issue of guessing on how much to spend
- Give someone a point whenever they have to spend a turn inactive, even if they don’t get to save for that condition, and let them spend 3 points to act normally for a round
- Change to wording to something like “once per turn, if you have made an attack roll or saving throw, and none of those checks on that turn are successful, you gain a point”
The general class feature overview for the fighter, i.e. hit dice, proficiencies, and equipment, doesn’t look much different than in the 2014 D&D rules. I like this because I think some of the class equipment lists in One D&D have been oversimplified because they are designed to remove a choice point. But removing that choice point pushes characters in a direction that allows them to choose their weapons and armor doesn’t.
Last Stand replaces Second Wind at 1st level. Martial Action replaces Fighting Style. Interestingly, Last Stand frees up a bonus action, while Martial Action costs you a Bonus action to “load” your special ability.
Last Stand (1st Level). Instead of getting Second Wind, the Project Black Flag Fighter gets Last Stand. Instead of using a bonus action to regain 1d10 + level in hit points, you spend a reaction when you reach 0 hit points to spend a number of hit dice up to your proficiency bonus to recover hit points. Instead of regaining this on a short rest, this is a long rest ability. I kind of like this as an alternative. I’m a fan of making the hit dice economy more active outside of short rests, without totally wrecking the game. It does mean short rests are a little bit less important to the core fighter.
Martial Action (1st Level). Instead of getting a fighting style, the playtest Fighter picks one of four actions that they can perform with a bonus action:
- Aim (double proficiency bonus on ranged attacks)
- Guard (spend a bonus action to call out an opponent within 5 ft. to have disadvantage on their first attack)
- Quick Strike (make an off-hand attack with your ability bonus in damage, but you can take it even if you spend your primary action to do something other than attack)
- Wind Up (double proficiency bonus on two-handed attacks)
Here is where I have to think about something that I personally like and need to decide if I like it across the board. I would rather more classes have abilities that are unique to that class, rather than having the ability to points to an existing rules module that might be referenced by multiple classes. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I like this better than getting a fighting style, especially since we haven’t seen the Paladin or the Ranger yet, to see if they get something similar. I do like this not just being a feat, and giving different classes that feat, as One D&D has done with fighting styles. What’s interesting is that some things that just “worked” as a Fighting Style, in the context of what it does, now use up part of your action economy. It makes sense for Quick Strike, but it’s strange for Guard, which definitely feels like it’s exactly what you would use a reaction for, and for Aim and Wind up, when Archery just gives you a +2.
But beyond that, let’s look at Aim and Wind Up, because they worry me. Aside from costing a bonus action, at 1st through 4th level, it does less than the Archery style does, but only if you can find some way to wrangle an extra attack before 5th level. Otherwise, it’s still a +2 to hit. The problem is, with bounded accuracy, a +2 to hit is actually pretty good, all the time. A +2 to hit is still going to be meaningful to a 15th-level character, because the number doesn’t go up as quickly as they did in previous editions of D&D. But that +2, which should be meaningful for a 15th level character, is now actually a +5.
If you want to have maybe a little bit more punch than a +2, I would rather see a +1d4 to the attack after a bonus action, because you could get a +4, but it’s not a constant +4 bonus that raises both your floor and your ceiling of your range. But honestly, I would rather just see the original fighting styles still in place.
The Spell Blade is essentially a recreation of the Eldritch Knight subclass for the fighter, which doesn’t exist in the 5e SRD. Because this has to be distinctly reconstructed, I can understand why some of these abilities end up at the same place but take a different route to get there.
The Spellcasting progression of the Spell Blade, at least up to 8th level, matches the Eldritch Knight. So you’re picking up spellcasting as an additional ability, and may end up with up to 4th level spells. This is an interesting case where the Spell Blade gets Arcane spells, and like a some One D&D classes, they only get access to some schools of magic, but the Eldritch Knight was one of the few classes that had that kind of restriction way back in 2014. That means up until you hit 8th level, you can only learn Abjuration and Evocation spells.
Enchant Weapon (3rd Level). Instead of the Eldritch Knight, which can bond to two different weapons and can summon them, you can’t summon your single bonded weapon, but it doesn’t just count as a magic weapon, it also gets a +1 bonus to boot. I’m fine with this slightly different version of the ability. The other ability may give you some interesting problem solving situations you can overcome, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to get a little bit of a bigger bite from this ability.
Expanded Talent List (3rd Level). Back when the first packet pointed out that the talent lists were going to be limited by class, I was wondering if some of the subclasses would widen that list access, and yes, it appears they will. You can access the Martial or Magic Talent list.
Spell Multiattack (7th Level). Speaking of taking a particular talent . . . instead of letting you attack as a bonus action when you use an action to cast a cantrip, you can instead substitute one of the attacks that you gain from your attack action for the ability to cast a cantrip. That frees up your bonus action, and it means that if you have the Combat Casting talent, being a dual-wielding Spell Blade is a viable option, because you can use your weapon as a casting focus, attack, use a cantrip, and bonus action attack with your off-hand. I like this development, and actually this wording is cleaner, especially in light of some of the newer 5e stat blocks that let casters throw a spell into their multiattack routines.
The Weapon Master isn’t exactly the Battle Master, but it is a fighter class that has a specific resource that it can spend on a number of maneuvers. That resource isn’t measured in dice, however, so the execution of how it all works is a little different.
Mastery (3rd Level). You pick three weapon, and those are the weapons you have mastered. Whenever you deal damage with them, you can reroll the damage dice and get the better result. This one feels a little like more of a throwback, because a lot of more recent design in this space would have you picking one weapon you were proficient with, and being able to swap that weapon out after a long rest.
Stunts (3rd Level). You get proficiency bonus + 1 number of stunt points to spend on three stunts that you can pick from the following list, which you can use with a weapon that you have mastered:
- Arcing Strike (you do half your damage from a successful attack to a nearby target if you have a two-handed slashing weapon)
- Cheap Shot (you add an unarmed strike as part of the same attack action without using one of your attacks)
- Hobbling Strike (you can reduce your foe’s damage by 50% but you don’t do any damage)
- Make it Count (you can only make one attack with your attack action, but you do so at +10 to hit)
- Parry (you spend a reaction to reduce damage by d10 + proficiency bonus)
- Riposte (you can use a reaction to attack someone that misses you with an attack)
- Run Through (you can do half damage from a successful attack to a nearby target if you have a piercing weapon)
- Shifting Strike (move 5 feet for free after you hit a target, but you have to still be within 5 feet of the target)
- Sweep the Leg (cause the target of a successful attack to make a STR save or fall over)
Similar abilities to Arcing Strike and Run Through have mentioned that you can compare the attack roll you made to hit the original target to the new target, and if it beats their AC, you do the extra damage. I think this would probably be a good rider to put in place here as well.
Hobbling Strike and Shifting Strike both feel a little underwhelming. I think Hobbling Strike should still get to do half damage, because some of the DMG optional maneuvers almost do what this ability does. Limiting Shifting Strike to remaining within 5 feet of your opponent feels like it’s undercutting the idea that this could be a swashbuckling move allowing you to dart out of reach, although Shifting Strike and the requirement that it be a slashing weapon used almost made me think this was going to be about moving the opponent five feet, which could be an interesting battlefield control ability.
You probably think I’m going to bring up bounded accuracy in light of Make it Count, but I’m not, because this is something that requires you to give up a resource. I think there may still be some issues, though. As written, this ability gets worse after 5th level, because then it’s costing you your extra attack. It might be worth it to just bump the cost of this maneuver to 2 stunt points and not worry about if the character gets additional attacks after the first one with a +10.
You get an additional stunt at 7th level. When you get a new stunt, you can also swap out an old stunt for one you don’t already have. The current list has options for slashing and piercing weapons, but not special effects based on bludgeoning weapons, but the document does mention that they are planning on designing more stunts for this subclass.
Deadly Flourish (7th). Your crit range for mastered weapons is now 19-20. This is a little late compared to the Champion’s ability to do this at 3rd level, which I only bring up because this is a little bit of a patchwork combination of Battle Master with Champion thrown in as well at this point. I don’t think this is a terrible 7th-level ability, but if it came in much higher, it probably would be pushing it for mid-game utility.
Overall Fighter Thoughts
I really like Last Stand as an ability, and I can’t think of too much that interacts with Second Wind that would make this ability a complication for backward compatibility. There might be something out there, but I’m going to say if it doesn’t jump out at me, there may not be a whole lot that plays in that space.
I’m not seeing a lot in the martial action space that makes it feel like an improvement over fighting styles. I think tangling up the action economy by shifting towards bonus actions, especially for things that more logically use reactions, isn’t ideal, and doubling the proficiency bonus from Tier 2 on, at the cost of just a bonus action, is potentially a bounded accuracy core conceit issue.
The tweaks to the Spell Blade actually feel better than the Eldritch Knight at those same levels to me, and is a little more clearly expressed.
The Weapon Master feels like it’s going in the right direction, but there are some cost issues that probably need to be addressed with some of the stunts. I’m interested to see how it feels with a few more stunts, but I wish it was just a wee bit more flexible.
I’ve already dedicated a lot of words to the general direction of the playtest and the Fighter, so I’m going to resume in the next post, looking at the Wizard, the Arcane Traditions, the new (and slightly tweaked) talents, and the entire concept of magic across the cosmos. You know. Simple topics.
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