D&D 5e Playtest: Kits of Old

This month’s Unearthed Arcana is another brief one, but to be fair, Mearls has less time around the holidays just like the rest of us. “Kits of Old” looks back to 2e’s kit system to find the gold among the dross. The short version of the result is that I always like Unearthed Arcana – even when I wouldn’t use the material as-written, it never fails to present new ideas into the mix for homebrew designers like me. This time, it’s all about the bard and the fighter.

Bard: the College of Swords

The Complete Bard’s Handbook gave us the Blade kit, for bards who perform weapon tricks and add more Fighter to their fighter/mage/thief class mix. This College likewise mixes more weapon-based fighting into a bard’s gameplay, and winds up making only one significant change from the College of Valor.

They receive:

  • Bonus proficiencies. Medium armor, scimitars, cool, whatevah. Very similar to Valor, but more limited.
  • Two-weapon fighting style. Now that’s interesting – might be the first time a fighting style has shown up outside of Fighter, Paladin, and Ranger. The fact that they only get one choice is mostly a strong signal of how they expect you to play as a Blade – high Dex, two weapons.
  • Blade Flourish is where this College really parts ways with what we’ve seen before. They’re spending Bardic Inspiration dice more or less like Combat Superiority dice, though it costs them their bonus action to do so. That’s a little bit of a problem in a two-weapon-fighting based subclass.
    • Defensive Flourish applies your Bardic Inspiration die to AC for one round.
    • Trick Shooter’s Flourish is a thrown-dagger-only version of Precision Attack, but because it’s a separate bonus action, it has to be declared before the attack. Double value against unattended, inanimate objects is good thematic cohesion.
    • Unnerving Flourish is good for keeping enemies alive and terrified after a battle.
    • Note that Valor gets Combat Inspiration – granting Bardic Inspiration dice to others for damage or AC boosts – in place of Blade Flourish. Similar, but leader-y rather than striker-y.
  • Extra Attack at 6th level. Same as Valor.
  • Battle Magic at 14th level. Same as Valor.

This is basically fine, and very good for a carnival performer bard. Its main apparent problem is in its action economy – if you would drop someone with your off-hand attack, you’re interfering with your own ability to use Unnerving Flourish. I am pretty sure they just need to drop the bonus action cost on all Blade Flourish abilities and call it a day. The bonus action cost is there because the core bard feature Bardic Inspiration costs a bonus action to grant its dice, but you can offset that cost by up to 10 minutes, and many bards aren’t as pushed toward two-weapon-fighting as these dudes.

There’s an interesting basis for DtD’s Displaced Hand warrior order here – I would just add bow, crossbow, and other types of thrown weapons to Trick Shooter’s Flourish and call it a day. (Assuming the suggested action-economy change, that is.)

Bard: the College of Satire

So about how the College of Swords is a FIGHTER-mage-rogue? This is a fighter-mage-ROGUE. It riffs on the Jester of 2e, and for that matter the Jester background of the early-ish 5e playtests. I like tricksters and holy fools as much as anyone. I particularly like this write-up’s depiction of the social role of the jester and satirist. They might steal a little too much thunder from the Rogue, though.

They receive:

  • Proficiency in Sleight-of-Hand and thieves’ tools. Fine, whatever. I always like it when someone outside the Rogue class could take on the traps-and-locks functions that a party needs.
  • Tumbling Fool, which might be too good. “Tumble” is a new bonus action that grants the following.
    • Disengage + Dash. Okay, so it’s better than Cunning Action on its face, if more narrow.
    • Climbing speed equal to your current speed. This is better than the climbing portion of the Thief’s Second-Story Work feature, because a climbing speed ignores the need to make skill checks.
    • Half damage from falling, so sometimes better than a monk’s Slow Fall feature.
    • That’s a lot to pack into a single bonus action. It’s like the reverse of the College of Swords’ action economy problem.
  • Fool’s Insight grants a supernatural ability to read a room, with per-long-rest uses of detect thoughts. The weird thing about this is that it tacks on a mostly silly “punishment” to the target if it passes its saving throw against deeper reading. I don’t get the thematic point of that – I feel like jesters shouldn’t just be able to stare at people and have them become silly because they succeeded a saving throw. The jester’s job is to figure out what is ridiculous about them.
    • As an important note, most DMs I know, especially me, would be in a constant war with the jester’s player to keep the whole game from devolving into one extended fart joke. If you’re going to play a jester, you have an extra responsibility to take the game seriously and make your jokes funny in-character. Otherwise you’re just an asshole who shows up to ruin the DM’s efforts to build mood and tension. Jack Snipe, in the Erfworld webcomic, is hands-down one of the best examples of doing this well that I have ever read.
  • Fool’s Luck trades saving your ass right now for Bad Stuff later, on the DM’s timeline, in a way kind of like the Wild Magic sorcerer’s Tides of Chaos feature. I like that you only have Bad Stuff later if Fool’s Luck does save your ass right now. Anyway, this is basically fine – very broad self-buffing options with drawbacks, rather than the narrower self-buffing options of the Blade.

This one is a little much, but if Tumbling Fool got trimmed down… a lot… it would be fine. It would also sing its siren song to people who want to show up to games and be the center of attention by making fun of the DM more than engaging with the game, so please observe caution before allowing a player anywhere near this College.

Fighter: the Cavalier Archetype

Let’s start by saying that any archetype depending on something you can’t take into a dungeon with you is a problem in D&D. If we were playing Fiends & Field Battles, mounted classes would work a lot better. That said, this is a surprisingly good archetype, and literally the first time I think I have ever liked something called a Cavalier in D&D (once I got past my hopelessly munchkin-y thirteen-year-old tastes, that is – don’t you dare fucking judge me).

Anyway, the Cavalier receives:

  • Two extra skills from a short list of knightly skills. Good social support implied here.
  • Born to the Saddle, which gives you advantage on saves to resist dismounting and a few riding-related tricks. Since there’s no Ride skill, there are no Ride skill checks; it’s just as well, because the Ride skill came with a lot of weird problems in 3.x. Anyway, this ability is fine, and very good for a tourney knight.
  • Four Combat Superiority options, and 4d8 superiority dice. It’s interesting that you’re not shopping from a list for these abilities, but they form a cohesive style, so that’s good.
    • A bonus to checks to control your mount. This probably won’t come up too much, but it’s good to have.
    • Precision Attack.
      • This is a solid stand-in for all of the scaling attack bonuses with various weapons that Cavalier classes and kits of 1e and 2e wanted to hand out.
    • Lance-only Trip Attack.
    • Something sort of like Parry, but possibly a lot better. As a reaction, apply a superiority die to your AC or your mount’s AC. Even if the attack still hits, you or your mount suffer half damage. This is amazing (and shows up again in the Scout). I wonder if we’ll see Battle Masters get something like this as a new option?
      • This might need to be changed to not require the fighter to be mounted, just so they can use a CS feature other than Precision Attack while unmounted.
  • Ferocious Charger makes your lance-only Trip Attack even better by letting you pour a second superiority die onto it, and if you do, you impose disadvantage on the saving throw to resist knockdown.
  • Improved Combat Superiority. Same as Battle Master.
  • Relentless. Same as Battle Master.

I like this a lot – the Champion and Battle Master archetypes have been widely criticized for being playstyles rather than perceptible themes, and this twists the Battle Master playstyle toward a more concrete theme. I like what goes on here, and I would play or allow such a class without reservation. (I don’t say that about Unearthed Arcana subclasses often.) Now, my campaign takes place mostly in places where horses are inconvenient, so I’d have to come up with more chances for the Cavalier to shine, but that would be an acceptable cost.

Fighter: the Scout Archetype

I’m… not entirely sure why this is here. If you want to play a lightly armored combatant who sneaks around, shouldn’t you be a ranger or a rogue? This is the alt.Ranger for people who want non-spellcasting rangers.

Scouts receive:

  • Three new skill proficiencies, in the general theme of rangers and rogues. Thieves’ tools can be one of them.
    • This puts them out in front as the class with the greatest number of skill proficiencies. (Don’t pick thieves’ tools. Learn that with the Training downtime activity.) Of course, they don’t get Expertise, but still – they have seven proficiencies. That’s solid.
  • Combat Superiority again. Three abilities, 4d8 to start.
    • Boost Athletics, Nature, Perception, Stealth, or Survival checks. So… this is, on average, better than Expertise.
      • In combination with Natural Explorer, scouts are better at ranger-like skill functions than rangers are. A 20th-level scout with 14 Wisdom could potentially hit a (fixed in an edit, thanks Rauron) DC 40 Survival check. That doesn’t come up much… or ever, but is it the highest attainable skill DC we’ve seen?
    • Precision Attack. It’s a thing.
      • ETA: Stands-in-Fire has pointed out to me that one Sharpshooter feat later, a +d8 or better to attack rolls is easy to turn into +10 to damage.
    • That same Parry-but-maybe-better thing that Cavaliers get, except that its qualifying condition is “while wearing light or medium armor” rather than “while mounted.” This really needs a name that players can use at the table.
  • Natural Explorer. Did I mention that they’re alt.Rangers? Scouts get new terrain types at 7th and 15th level. This is basically fine, and I’m less grouchy about a Fighter subclass getting one one of eight (scaling to 3/8) terrain types as a place where they shine.
  • Improved Combat Superiority.
  • Relentless.

The Scout is the least compelling offering from this document, though its potency (Action Surge, Extra Attack 3, Second Wind) highlights the problems of the core ranger even more. Four attacks in a round, plus an occasional Action Surge, is hilariously better than any tactically-likely Volley that a Hunter could fire off… and it works fine for focusing fire as well as spreading out your attacks. (To put that another way: fix the Hunter by dropping Volley and Whirlwind Attack, and give them Extra Attack 2 instead. It supports melee and ranged, and versatile rangers, in equal measure.)

If this ever gets released, they’ll want to have an official ruling on whether Martial Adept dice can be used on Cavalier and Scout maneuvers. If so, Scouts can be pretty amazing tanks by spending many of their available feats on Martial Adept, and saving their dice to block or mitigate every incoming attack. Of course, if you’re going to do that, you could just play a character that gets resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage almost all the time. You know, a barbarian. (But the Scout would have a fighter’s terrifying number of attacks and Action Surges.)

What I love about this document is how the Bardic Colleges and Fighter Archetypes treat their currencies. Combat Superiority with a tightly themed list is particularly nice, and I can see directing that toward other fighting styles, up to and including quasi-magical styles. I am excited about seeing Blades and Cavaliers after playtesting, in a future release. Less so for Jesters and Scouts, because I expect Jesters to encourage bad player behavior, and Scouts because they’re taking most of the ranger’s distinctive mechanics and theme, and doing it better.

Oh, and for some kits I’d like to see converted: crack open your trusty copy of the Complete Sha’ir’s Handbook. Pick one at random. I don’t know if it’ll be any good, but it will definitely be a new and amazing theme. If you’re looking for more Al-Qadim content, you should be reading Stands-in-Fire right now.

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