What Do I Know About Gameplay? Core Competencies, One D&D, and Project Black Flag

Both Wizards of the Coast and Kobold Press currently have playtests going on to produce a new version of a game based on the 5e SRD. I’ve already talked about this in my look at Kobold Press’ second playtest packet, but I was a little surprised at how many conventions introduced in Wizards of the Coast’s One D&D have been adopted as the baseline for Kobold Press’ version of the game.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some strange narratives floating around online that I can only assume stem from some people either not fully being able to express what they were hoping for, or that some people are only paying attention to some of the bigger highlights of the playtests. For example, I’m hearing that Kobold Press isn’t making enough changes, or that they are effectively making no changes, and honestly, I was kind of surprised at the number of changes that were introduced in packet two. But while there are similar elements between the playtests, there is definitely a distinct way that both are doing similar things.

Let Me Sum Up

To quickly touch on this if you haven’t read my most recent Kobold Press playtest first impression, Kobold Press appears to also be standardizing subclass levels, and they are also moving towards meta-spell lists based on sources of powers, rather than discreet spell lists.

Now that I’ve been diving into both of these playtests, I’ve been really interested in looking at what I consider the strengths of both companies. I’m sure this won’t at all be controversial.

Kobold Press Wizards of the Coast
1st Monsters Subclasses
2nd Setting Material Adventures
3rd Adventures Magic Items
4th Magic Items Monsters
5th Spells Spells
6th Subclasses Setting Material

Core Competencies

Monsters–I think it’s pretty widely accepted that Kobold Press produces strong monster books. Their monsters are colorful, varied, and they seem to scale more effectively at higher levels, remaining threats to higher-level characters. WotC produces fun monsters with great stories, but there have been several rounds of WotC “recalibrating” monster difficulty, but higher-level monsters still feel a little more fragile than they should. We’ve been told that WotC has its own calculations that go deeper than the DMG math, but even after recalibrations, it feels like that additional information doesn’t quite make higher-level monsters punch as hard as they could.

Subclasses–WotC doesn’t get enough credit for this, but especially in recent years, the story of various subclasses has been very consistent with the abilities that the subclass receives and creates a core gameplay loop at lower levels of play. There are way more official WotC subclasses I want to play, compared to my ability to play them. In fact, the weakest WotC subclasses (weakest here meaning least enticing, not any measure of damage output or any other measure) were the subclasses in the core rules. Kobold Press, on the other hand, has come up with some evocative stories, but most of the subclass mechanics have been very “safe,” seemingly calibrated in line with those less interesting 2014 subclasses.

Setting Material–Kobold Press makes very evocative setting material. They are focused on detailing one setting, and providing more details for specific areas of that setting. You can argue that WotC is spread across a wider number of settings, so they won’t be providing as much support, but WotC’s approach is to provide exactly as much setting information as they feel necessary to support an adventure. Given that Spelljammer leaned very heavily into this model of “exactly what is needed for the adventure,” I’m really curious to see what Planescape is going to look like. I think some of this is intentional. After spending years on the Sword Coast, the push now feels like it is to reinforce that D&D doesn’t have multiple settings, but that D&D setting is the multiverse that contains what used to be framed as individual settings.

Adventures–Both companies turn out solid adventures. Some adventures may fly above or below this standard, but overall, both companies provide very useful, fun, products to be used at the table. Kobold Press has the edge with a few more anthology collections of short adventures, and WotC has more campaign-length adventures. In fact, the one thing, for me at least, that nudges WotC ahead of Kobold Press is that there aren’t as many campaign options for Kobold Press, meaning that GMs generally have to work a little harder to turn those anthologies into campaigns.

Magic Items–Both companies spent a lot of the current lifespan of D&D 5e sprinkling magic items into other sources, although Kobold Press has one product that is entirely dedicated to new items. There are some memorable and useful items in the Vault of Magic, but I think WotC still has the edge here. Not only can WotC pull on the nostalgia heartstrings by giving stats to iconic items like the Dragonlance, WotC also got to play in some spaces like common magic items and the draconic-themed magic items from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons.

Spells–I’ve got both companies tied for this one. WotC puts out fewer spells, and unlike Kobold Press’ “safer” subclasses and magic items, Kobold Press has some extremely memorable spell options. However, because Kobold Press swings hard with their spells, there are some great, flavorful, memorable spells, and then there are spells that really should not do what they do. WotC leans “safer” with spells, but they can’t really pull ahead of Kobold Press because even with fewer spells, they still manage to produce a few gameplay-warping spells like Silvery Barbs.

DnD_Bug_4c_8_RGBBut Why Though?

Part of why I’m pondering all of this is that I want to think of what is potentially lost depending on what gets modified in both games. I’m not worried about monsters, because, at least up to this point, I haven’t seen anything that indicates that monsters will require any kind of modification to work. Even if some of the monsters end up getting new, recalibrated versions in the Monster Manual and whatever the Kobold Press core bestiary contains, as of right now, it doesn’t look like anything will make it difficult to use those monsters that don’t immediately get a new, updated version.

I don’t think adventures will be too much of a problem, either. Much like AD&D 2nd edition and D&D 3.5, it should be pretty easy to use an adventure written before these relaunched rulesets with the new rules. Thankfully, we didn’t see every spellcaster designed with Silvery Barbs in 5e adventures in the same way that Haste was handed out in City of the Spider Queen.

Spells could get weird. An individual spell is a discreet rules module, and shouldn’t be too hard to port over. Except some spells were written expressly to exist on a very specific class spell list. It’s not enough to know that a ranger-specific spell should be a primal or primordial spell, it’s going to take some thought to make sure that the spell doesn’t do something strange when it suddenly works for classes that never got access to it before. This isn’t helped by the fact that the primary tool we seem to have in either new ruleset to restrict spells within a power source spell list is the spell’s school, especially when it comes to classes that are assumed to get the whole she-bang within the power source (druids and wizards, for example).

That said, while it may complicate converting spells from class lists to power sources, I’m not really seeing a meta trend in either playtest that makes me think that spells, or magic items, will be better or worse designed when they are being made specifically for the new edition.

Because there are a lot of subclasses I really like, I am worried about how complicated it is going to be to continue using that material. Both playtests have mentioned conversion guides for using previous material, but there are bard subclasses that seem like they will be more complicated to use with the shift from bonus action to reaction, as an example. The juggling of subclasses can push the first “open slot” into different tiers of play. If it feels too clunky to use those older subclasses, being able to “technically” convert them is going to fall a little flat.

BFBannerWhat’s Missing

I didn’t rank either company for their design work with feats. Both have introduced feats in different products, but until the most recent D&D releases, feats did feel like something you could make optional. Sometimes it might be fun and thematic to pick something that emphasizes an aspect of class or species or adds a secondary competency to a character, but it was also really tempting to get your primary stat up to 20 as quickly as possible. Feat design was all over the place, but never felt important enough to worry about.

But both One D&D and Project Black Flag are putting a lot more emphasis on feats (or talents in the case of Project Black Flag). Everybody gets a feat from their background, but while One D&D is structuring feats by levels (at least 1st, 4th, and 20th), meaning they are designed with different power levels in mind, Project Black Flag is recalibrating talents so that there aren’t any +1 ability score increases in addition to another benefit, while all the 4th level feats in One D&D embrace that structure.

Both One D&D and Project Black Flag have an option to use a feat or a talent to still default to the idea of a character gaining a total of +2 ability score bonuses at their advancement levels. This might get more complicated with Project Black Flag, however, because talents are organized by lists that get locked down by class, meaning that some classes can only increase Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, and some classes can only increase Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.

Because feats/talents aren’t optional anymore, this could open the floodgates to feat design, and it will be interesting seeing how existing feats work in this paradigm. Obviously Project Black Flag isn’t going to be able to directly address a feat like Flames of Phlegathos from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, but it will still be interested to see what the feat to talent conversion rules will look like.

Reverse compatibility for feats may be as messy as anything else in this era, but it’s also going to be harder to gauge, since feats are moving from optional to fully integrated.

In Conclusion

Why no, I have no idea how I want to wrap this up, other than to say that I’m kind of sad that what I think might be one of WotC’s core competencies, subclasses, may be one of the more difficult items to use after the 2024 rules. I know there are rough edges to take off the D&D 5e chassis, but in the end, whichever ruleset feels the most like the game I’m currently playing is likely going to be the one I like the most, but it also feels very strange to be that both playtest rules have similar assumptions that may not actually make them play nicely together despite that commonality.

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