Right off the bat, I want to note that these are literally my first impressions of the D&D Next playtest rules. I haven’t actually played a session with them and it may be awhile before I get the opportunity (if I ever do).
In order to help you understand my perspective on these rules, I want you to understand a couple of things about where I’m coming from.
First, I have come to realize over the past few months that 5th Edition will have a tough time selling itself to me. I have an immense amount of time, expertise, and money invested in 3rd Edition. In order to overcome the inertia of that investment, 5th Edition would need to radically improve on 3rd Edition. But the reality is that I am overwhelmingly satisfied with 3rd Edition as a ruleset. Yes, there are a few problem areas, but I’ve been able to fix most of these with less than 8 pages of house rules. 5th Edition needs to show me a radical improvement; but there just isn’t that much room to improve.
Second, I want the game bearing the “Dungeons & Dragons” trademark to have the fundamental gameplay that Gygax and Arneson created in 1974. I’m very comfortable with the game gaining an accretion of new mechanics – something which can be seen in every edition of the game from 1974 to 2008. But once you start fundamentally altering the core elements of D&D’s gameplay, you’re going to have a very tough time selling me a product with “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover.
So, bearing those things in mind, here are my first impressions of the D&D Next playtest.
(1) As I mentioned in “The Design History of Saving Throws” a few months back, 4E inverted the facing of the mechanic. I’m glad to see the playtest document revert this decision.
(2) I’m tentatively supportive of the decision to replace the Reflex/Fortitude/Will triumvirate with saving throws based directly on the ability scores (so that you have a Strength save, a Dexterity save, and so forth). Like 3rd Edition, this offers a universal system.
However, it does potentially reintroduce the hierarchy problem that AD&D eliminated way back in ’78. And you can actually see this in the playtest document. For example, Wisdom saves are used to “resist being charmed” while a Charisma save is used to “resist certain magical compulsions, especially those that overcome your sense of self”. (You might think that Wisdom applies to non-magical charming, but you’d be wrong: Both charm person and command are specifically resisted with Wisdom saves.)
(3) The advantage/disadvantage concept seems like a really valuable tool. Basically, if you have advantage you roll 2d20 and keep the highest. If you have disadvantage on a roll, you roll 2d20 and keep the lowest. Not only does it provide a really useful mechanical hook that you can hang things on, it gives both the players and the DM a firm concept to aim for: “I’m going to try to get an advantage on my attack roll by swinging on the chandelier and dropping on him from above.” or “I take extra time to cover my tracks, hopefully disadvantaging anyone trying to follow me.”
(4) Similarly, the “hazard” concept seems like a great tool. Essentially, if you fail a roll by 10 or more you suffer the hazard. This immediately gives you a consistent mechanical framework for all kinds of stuff: Fail a climbing check and you don’t make any progress; but if suffer a climbing hazard you fall. Fail a check to disarm a trap and you didn’t disarm it; but if you suffer a hazard on the check you’ve actually triggered the trap. And so forth.
(5) I suspect that loosening up a character’s turn during combat will be very advantageous. You can start your move before taking an action and then complete your move afterwards. In addition, all sorts of incidental actions (like drawing a sword or opening an unlocked door) are just assumed to happen “during the round” without need to take an action. I suspect the combination will make it a lot easier for people to improvise, take chances, and generally keep combat more dynamic.
(6) There are dissociated mechanics all over the place. The rogue’s Knack ability (you’re really good at doing something, so twice per day you can choose to be good at it) is a good example of this.
If there’s one thing that I would absolutely, 100% qualify as a complete dealbreaker for 5th Edition it would be ubiquitous dissociated mechanics. So this does not bode well.
(7) On a similar note, the healing mechanics are essentially identical to 4th Edition’s approach, except they’ve replaced the term “healing surge” with “hit dice”. I’ve never liked the dissociation of this system. I also don’t like the fact that it allows you to fully recover your hit points after a rest (suggesting that the designers are still fixated on a tactics-only version of D&D play instead of embracing a balanced mixture of tactical and strategic play). And I’m also not a fan of appropriating terms from previous editions and applying them to completely different mechanics in an effort to appeal to nostalgia.
(8) There’s quite a bit of math in the playtest document that looks really questionable to me. I understand it’s a playtest and the whole point is to find stuff to fix, but some of this stuff seems really self-evidently broken.
For example, both splint armor and banded armor cost 500 gp. Splint gives you AC 15 + half Dex modifier, whereas banded gives you AC 16 and a -5 feet speed penalty. If you’ve got a +2 Dex modifier or better, splint is obviously better. And, at best, banded is giving you a +1 bonus to AC. Is a +1 bonus AC really worth a -5 feet speed penalty? Probably not.
Consider, also, studded leather vs. ringmail. Studded leather is cheaper and gives you AC 13 + Dex modifier. Ringmail is more expensive and gives you AC 13 + half Dex modifier. If you have a -1 penalty to Dex, ringmail is superior. But in all other circumstances, the studded leather is strictly better.
(9) As a note of incredibly minor interest and consequence, flasks of acid are inexplicably nerfed even more. This is part of a long trend line of nerfing acid, but we’ve reached the point where it no longer makes any sense at all: Acid in the playtest document is a ranged weapon with one use that deals 1d4 damage. It costs 10 gp. By contrast you can buy a sling for 5 sp and deal 1d6 damage.
(Alchemist’s fire also gets slightly nerfed compared to 3E, but not as severely.)
(10) Spellcasters can now cast cantrips and orisons as often as they like. It’ll be interesting to see how this feels in playtest, but based on the pregenerated characters it feels to me like straight fighters really are actually getting screwed from Day 1 for the first time in the history of D&D.
(11) It appears that absolutely nothing scales with level: Not attack bonuses, not skills. Nothing. It will be interesting to see what accumulating abilities without a commensurate increase in basic capability feels like in play. But I wasn’t a fan of 4E picking a “sweet spot” and locking it in for everybody, and this seems to only be making that even more explicit. At the very least, it’s tickling my “this doesn’t play like D&D” reflex pretty heavily.
MY MOMENTARY CONCLUSION
There’s some innovative and interesting stuff to see here. But I’m not seeing the knockout punch that convinces me that 5E is offering something worth abandoning the time, money, and expertise I have invested in 3E.
In addition, the infestation of dissociated mechanics I’m seeing are a complete poison pill. There’s no way I’m playing 5E if they stick around: They are, as I’ve said before, completely antithetical to everything I want from a roleplaying. They are antithetical to the act of roleplaying itself.
Finally, the system currently feels a lot more like D&D than 4E did. On the other hand, all we’re seeing is a very minimalist, very stripped-down version of the rules. If you similarly stripped 4E down, you’d also end up with something that feels a lot more like D&D than 4E did. And even what we’re seeing is distinctly “not D&D” in a lot of key ways.
So my first impression is one of skepticism leaning towards disappointment. Take that for what it’s worth.