During last month’s Dungeons and Dragons open gaming license controversy, third party publisher Kobold Press announced the development of an entirely new RPG system. Dubbed “Project Black Flag,” the ruleset provides an alternative, more palatable alternative to D&D. The first playtest packet for Project Black Flag dropped earlier this month, so of course I had to take a look at it.
Let’s just say my feelings are… mixed.
What’s up first in playtesting?
Playtesting has to start somewhere, and usually that somewhere is pretty boring. It’s usually the first chapter or two of the player’s handbook or core ruleset, for one. You get a taste of the game, a teaser, an overview. Later playtests might show off more of the game’s meat and potatoes. That first playtest drop is about introducing the game and its flavor. Project Black Flag’s first playtest packet is no different.
Packet 1 starts off with an introduction to the idea of fantasy roleplaying. It refers to the ruleset as [Core Fantasy Roleplaying], which I very much hope is a placeholder for something way cooler. Like… Adapted Roleplaying Ruleset. ARR would be a perfect abbreviation for a project codenamed Black Flag! (Kobold Press please hire me.) It treads old, familiar ground, but as the first section of a player’s handbook, that’s the expectation. Every TTRPG book I’ve read has an “I see you have crawled out from under that rock” section. While it’s pretty vanilla, given the subject matter that’s forgivable and even expected.
New game, same setup.
From there, Packet 1 moves on to character creation. And this is where we move from familiar to regurgitated. Project Black Flag uses exactly the same basic stats as Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder: CON, STR, DEX, INT, WIS, CHA. You calculate hitpoints the same as in D&D. Everything about character creation seems like a carbon copy of 5E. I understand that Kobold Press is primarily a publisher of third party 5E material, but when we were promised something new… I was hoping for something NEW. Not just 5E with the trademarked and copyrightable material removed.
Next up in Project Black Flag Packet 1 is character advancement and, once again, this is identical to D&D 5E. The packet walks you through XP and milestone, and explains how a Dungeon Master – sorry, that is actually trademarked by WotC, so Game Master – grants levels. Great Value versions of 5E or not, up to this point everything has been comfortably familiar and typical of fantasy TTRPGs.
This is where Project Black Flag charts a different course… right?
Wrong. From here, Packet 1 moves into the other cornerstones of character creation: race, subrace, and class. I mean… Lineage, heritage, and class. Project Black Flag picks up with WotC has been putting down with the changes to character creation since Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. It shuns the word “race,” for good and obvious reasons. It embraces the idea that your species does not determine what you are innately good at and what you are bad at. All your lineage determines is your lifespan, typical size, and speed. Once again, everything is nice and familiar. Safe. And it doesn’t add anything to the TTRPG genre at all.
The first lineages we get to test out are Dwarf, Elf, and Human – those perennial staples of fantasy literature. Again, I can forgive Kobold Press for being generic here because they’re trying to be generic. This is meant to be a blank canvas on which tables can paint any adventure they want. On the surface, the heritages look to be something flavorful and unique, but…
Yeah, no. The names are different, but the content is the same. Project Black Flag’s elves are immune to sleep, everyone gets innate proficiencies… There’s even a cantrip called mending. That does the same thing in PBF as in 5E. I do appreciate that heritages and backgrounds are different layers of character development, so you can have a human wanderer who is also a scholar or a city-dwelling human who is also a soldier.
Rounding out Packet 1 are some sample talents. That is to say, relabeled feats. Characters get one as part of their Background, and then can choose to either take two stat points or a talent at improvement levels. Combat Casting is literally War Caster from 5E. Polyglot has an interesting twist on the Linguist feat, giving the character advantage on CHA checks in the chosen languages. The one blinding ray of sunshine in Packet 1 is the Trade Skills talent. It grants proficiency in some combination of two tools and/or vehicles, and so long as you have access to the materials you can spend a day to craft and sell your goods. You’re guaranteed at least 2g, or equivalent goods and services. It’s not a promise, but maybe given the attention to detail in that talent we can expect a well fleshed-out crafting system.
Is the ship sinking already?
In case you didn’t catch it from my tone throughout this piece, so far I am unimpressed by Kobold Press’s offering. With that being said, this is just the first playtest packet. It’s a first look, to show the overall direction of the project. There is no point in reinventing the wheel, don’t fix what’s not broken, and so on. Reactions seem mixed, overall. Skeptical as I am though, I am holding my action until more information is released.
What do you think? Is Project Black Flag going to continue as a generic 5E clone? Or will future playtest updates bring innovation and flavor to the TTRPG space? Drop a comment or chime in on Twitter and join the conversation!