D&D’s May 2020 Unearthed Arcana introduced a new technique for class features: proficiency scaling. This means that the number of uses you get to use a feature based on a short rest is based on your proficiency bonus. As confirmed by D&D Designer Dan Dillon, this is new tech for D&D:
Let’s take a look at this new mechanic with an eye for evaluating the benefits and detriments versus the traditional methods.
5th Edition has typically employed a few methods to determine how many uses a character gets from a specific class feature.
Most features say that you get to use them a certain number of times per rest. Most often, this is once, although there’s technically nothing stopping the design team from telling you that you get more than one use per short or long rest. The Cleric’s Channel Divinity is built this way, with additional uses coming online at successive levels. Either way, you get a certain number of uses (typically 1), which then resets on a short rest or a long rest.
Ability Bonus Scaling
There are also certain class features whose number of uses scale off an ability score bonus. For example, the Bard’s Bardic Inspiration keys off their Charisma bonus. You get to use the feature a number of times equal to your Charisma modifier before you must rest. Interestingly, the Bard actually scales the use of this feature in another way by changing the reset paradigm from long rest to short rest once you hit level 5.
Certain subclasses can use a class feature as many times as they want, but they need to expend a class resource to trigger it. Think of the Paladin’s Divine Smite, the Monk’s Flurry of Blows, or the Sorcerer’s Metamagic. This is mostly outside the scope of our discussion today, since your entire class pretty much needs to be built around employing this strategy.
Some newer tech is that features now may give a flat number of uses, with extra uses tied to expending a class resource. The first official printing of this method was the Artificer’s cannon in Eberron: Rising from the Last War (thanks to @Aryxymaraki for reminding us). The D&D design team has also been tinkering with this design mechanic in recent Unearthed Arcana, as well. See this example from the Clockwork Soul Sorcerer:
During the Dragon+ stream which introduced these classes, D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford was nice enough to indulge our request to discuss this new mechanic.
Benefits of Proficiency Scaling
Jeremy brought up some great points about the benefits of proficiency scaling, namely:
- Predictability in design.
- Depressurizing player choice.
- Simplicity of expression.
Go watch the stream. They spent about 10 minutes covering this topic, and explaining these benefits in greater depth.
Predictability in Design
When you use proficiency scaling, you know how many times a character will get to use a specific feature at each level. It’s very predictable and gives the designers certainty. Compare this with ability bonus scaling, which requires a disclaimer because we don’t know if the player has a higher score than zero! Of course, we must also question how much this fidelity of a couple extra feature uses really requires certainty at the design level. I’m not sure how much it matters whether you can use something 3 or 4 times per rest.
Depressurizing Player Choice
When class features scale based on ability bonus, there’s a lot more pressure to invest in that score to get more use out of your class feature. Tying feature use progression to something outside of player choice takes a lot of pressure off the player to make a “sub-optimal” character choice that is based off their vision for their character rather than raw power. This frees players not only with respect to investment of their ability scores, but also with respect to playing off-type races and making other quirky character choices.
On the flip side, these optimization challenges can prove interesting for players who enjoy character creation. They definitely drive diversity among player choice and character efficacy.
Simplicity of Expression
This is a huge benefit. Whereas other features require disclaimers (i.e. “minimum of once” on ability bonus scaling) or entire paragraphs to lay out their scaling (i.e. Channel Divinity), proficiency is already on your class chart. If you’ve played before, you know what it is, which makes this easy to apply.
Concerns About Proficiency Scaling
Of course, nothing is pure sunshine and rainbows. If it was, we wouldn’t even test it, we would just implement it. Let’s take a look at some of the potential drawbacks of implementing such a mechanic.
- Buff or nerf?
- Muddying terms.
Buff or Nerf?
In order to even contextualize what impact these features are having, we need to look at the practical impact they’re having on the number of uses. Obviously this is a buff over an 1 use/rest mechanic. However, the interesting comparison is ability bonus scaling, since it allows you multiple uses. Our instinct tells us that proficiency scaling is going to smooth out an ability bonus progression while giving it a higher cap. Let’s take a look on a chart:
Here you can see how this works out level-by-level. Whether lower levels come into play is going to depend on the level the class feature comes online. Whether these higher levels come into play is going to depend on how far the campaign goes. In sum, trying to parse the actual effect this is going to have on class design depends heavily on the feature and the table.
Primary Ability Score. As it turns out, for the majority of the levels players really play, proficiency scaling isn’t much more than a straight nerf to the number of uses a feature has.
Secondary Ability Score. That is, unless the class feature is leveraging a secondary ability score. As you can see, proficiency scaling starts the same as a secondary ability score, but progresses much more quickly while the player focuses on advancing their primary ability score.
The Middle Ground. But, proficiency scaling occupies an interesting niche. For the majority of relevant levels (5 to 15), where the meat of play is seen, proficiency bonus walks a nice tightrope between the progression of a primary and a secondary ability score. Whether alleviating this pressure on secondary ability scores is a good thing is likely a matter of preference.
Proficiency bonus is a number that you add to your rolls when you are proficient in that roll. Leveraging this design mechanic in other spaces muddies the term. As it stands, a new player can be offered a simple explanation of a ubiquitous mechanic that’s essential to understanding the base ruleset. The more we leverage this design element in other areas of the game, the less easy we make it to explain to new players what proficiency is.
We can accomplish the same mechanic as proficiency scaling with more traditional methods. You could say you get a number of uses equal to “1+ level/4 (rounded up).” It’s simple, but mathy enough to scare off most folks. You could also stick a sentence at the end of the feature explaining that you get another use at 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th level. Both of these solutions are more clunky than just saying “proficiency bonus.” But, they are wordier. Is the tradeoff worth it?
Multiclassing can be a concern for any feature that scales on proficiency, since proficiency is based on character level, not class level. Therefore, theoretically, I could dip into a class with a level 1 proficiency scaling feature, and then enjoy that class feature becoming more powerful as they invest in a different class.
While I share the general concern for “power creep,” I do not know how much it applies to the present Unearthed Arcana installation. Most of the features come online at middle or higher levels, which makes them unattractive for a multiclass dip. The Rogue does get a feature which comes online at level 3, which is a lot to invest for a dip, but not that much for a feature that may ultimately scale up to 6 uses. We need to evaluate this in playtesting and be judicious about the levels at which this mechanic is applied.
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