The Alexandrian

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.


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.

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62 Responses to “D&D Next Playtest: First Impressions”

  1. Jan says:

    For no. 8 I need to add that the ringmail grants disadvantage on stealth, do there is a drawback. But I agree that heavy armour is not good. I think raising the AC by just one point might solve this.

  2. Josh says:

    RE: dissociated mechanics- so how about suggesting methods of associating them? Mythic stories and modern competitions are rife with examples of extreme bursts of effort that cannot be carried out continually. Let a fighter have an “extreme” effort that gives them an extra action and then puts them at disadvantage through their following round. Times per day reflects that they cannot to do that extreme an effort regularly without seriously injuring themselves.

    Honestly, while I share the belief that dissociated mechanifs are problematic, 3.5 is most assuredly NOT free of them. Prestige classes in particular are full of limits and per day effects for no other reason than ‘class balance’, so it seems a little odd to call out the cases in the playtest as especially egregious.

    Thankfully this IS a playtest. We have the chance to articulate the problem, as you have, and propose a solution.

  3. Picador says:

    Interesting observations.

    One question for you re: dissociated mechanics, which are a real bugbear for a lot of OSR guys: as described by GG back in the 1st Ed. AD&D DMG, hit points sound like something very close to a dissociated mechanic. Ditto for saving throws. Thoughts?

  4. Ron says:

    My initial reaction after perusing the play test docs was very similar to yours. Will be interesting to see what WOTC does with the player feedback.

    BTW, have you ever made your 3E house rules available? Would love to see what’s in those 8 pages.

  5. Morgan says:

    I’m curious to know your thoughts on the overall loosening up/increased flexibility in the skill system, since it’s a topic you’ve explored before.

    RE #10: I was amused to read your thoughts, because I had almost the exact opposite reaction after looking at the fighter’s sheet: “Wow, maybe for once the *fighter* will be brokenly powerful!” It will be interesting to see how they compare in play (like you, I haven’t had a chance to actually play it, either).

    I’m also curious to know what character advancement will look like past levels 1-3. I’ve been sort of assuming that the numbers would scale by level, just at a much slower rate (similar to earlier editions), so there might be differences between 1st and 5th level, say, but not between 1st and 3rd. I’m seeing a lot of people drawing the same conclusion as you, though. If you’re correct in guessing that the numbers won’t scale by level, I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I prefer it to the 4e approach where everybody appears to advance, but the DCs all increase at the same rate so you might as well not change the numbers. On the other hand, neither approach feel very D&D-ish, so I’m hoping that my guess is correct and the numbers will scale past level 3.

  6. David G. says:

    The major theme they say they’re going for is customization. We’ll see how they do, but the playtest rules aren’t exactly “a very minimalist, very stripped-down version of the rules” since they include optional modules beyond the core mechanics. From their “Playtest: First Round Overview” blog post:

    “Finally, it’s worth noting the “old school” mode that we mention on the character sheets. Our philosophy with this game has been to limit all the expected bonuses and math progression to the classes. You can play with or without themes and/or backgrounds while also removing Hit Dice. The game becomes deadlier and relies more on player ingenuity and planning rather than direct combat. This set of changes points to how we want to approach rules modules. Try playing the game with those modifications and see how it matches up against AD&D.”

  7. Justin Alexander says:

    @Jan: Thanks for pointing that out. It definitely sinks the boat for ringmail as being any kind of viable option.

    The problem seems to be that the general design goal is to have everyone’s AC land in the 16 to 19 range (with magic and other abilities pushing it up from there): So characters with high Dex bonuses go for light armor, and then you move progressively up the chart as your Dex bonus declines. But you can’t do that while simultaneously loading up medium and light armors with a bunch of severely negative qualities. If you’re going to ask people to pay a price for heavier armors, then the heavier armors actually have to give you something worth the price.

    I think your suggestion of bumping AC values is probably correct. I’d probably lean towards knocking all the light armors down by 1 point and raising all the heavy armors by 2 points. Hard to judge exactly without seeing the rest of the system (in terms of where AC bonuses come from), but just in terms of relative values that would at least give heavy armor some unique value.

    @Josh: I tend not to use the later 3.5 supplements that are filled with dissociated mechanics for precisely that reason.

    I was also relatively okay with (or, at least, willing to live with) the Fighter Surge ability for precisely the reason you cite: It’s an extreme effort that you can’t pull off repeatedly specifically because it puts strain on the body. But stuff like the rogue’s Knack is completely off the deep end for me.

    I’ll also be honest: 4E has made me more sensitive and less tolerant of this stuff. If you presented me with a dissociated mechanic in 1995 I might be a little bit bugged by it, but I probably couldn’t have told you why. 4E highlighted the problem and added exclamation points to it.

    It’s kind of like my wife: She’s allergic to onions. When didn’t know it was onions she had a problem with, she would occasionally eat something and it would cause a reaction and she would live with it. Now that she knows that onions are the problem, though? She’s not eating onions.

    @Picador: I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve talked about the minor problems with non-scaling cure spells here, but it sounds like you’re talking about something more than that.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    @Ron: Quite a lot of them have actually appeared here on the Alexandrian over the years. Optional rules for turning, >teleporting, scrying, tumbling, and diplomacy.

    I also use super simple grappling, constitution damage for save-or-die effects, and a modified system for death and dying (because I don’t like the revolving door of death).

    In addition I use the 3.0 rules for cover, the 3.0 rules for stacking threat ranges, and a modified blending of 3.0 and 3.5 rules for damage reduction. Clerics can spontaneously cast domain spells (but lose their domain spell slot). I use the Aspects of Nature rules for druids from Unearthed Arcana. I tweak rangers favored enemies (they get the same bonus against all favored enemies) and they can select favored environments instead of favored enemies.

    Dodge grants a flat +1 bonus to AC. Toughness grants +1 hp per level.

    I don’t think I’ve ever posted my alternative rules for identifying magic items. Polymorph works like it does in Legends & Labyrinths (which I describe here).

  9. Josh says:

    Fair points on how your perception of dissociated mechanics have changed over the years, and also, yes you specified the rogue ability, I jumped to the conclusion you felt the same about the fighter because I’ve seen that feeling on the forum. I think Knack probably ought to change. Thing is, Skill Mastery makes rogues REALLY good at skills already. I don’t see much space for them to go, without a clunky per day limit. Tempted to say Knack is a dead end as it stands, but I’m curious if anyone has any ideas on fixing it before game development gets further along.

  10. Muninn says:

    Some questions before I can really form thoughts of my own (I haven’t read the playtest thing, so apologies if I ask some questions where the answers are obviously stated somewhere). One thing that I can say for certain: I will probably never get used to having to use the term “Hit Dice” to describe something completely unrelated to the meaning in 3.*

    You mention armours that add full DEX mod, half DEX mod, or no bonus: is what fraction of your DEX mod you add to the AC determined by the armour’s weight class (light, medium, heavy), or is it something listed for each armour.
    (As a preliminary thing, I will defend this concept: I think the grounds is something along the lines of “With real-life ‘stats’, the best armour would be the heaviest, but if you had superhuman dodging ability, you’d be better off unencumbered. As a result, the system of pricing breaks down a bit once you exceed ‘normal’ human range. Maybe make it easier to enchant heavy armour to higher bonuses to balance the high-level play?

    Do they say what qualifies as an advantage or disadvantage for the purpose or that whole 2d20-drop-highest-or-lowest thing? I haven’t read the playtest document yet, but while talking with a friend who had skimmed it, he mentioned that rule. Is it just any situational bonus, or is there a specific list of things that provide that?

    What power level are the cantrips in 3e terms? Is it a general “3e level 0 = 5e level zero”, or have such spells become more or less powerful with the edition change?

    (Also, since the topic of your House Rules has come up, is there any chance you could make something like the “Creations” page from your pre-Wordpress site? I always found that to be incredibly useful when I was in a situation where I might need to reference several of your alternate rules)

  11. Muninn says:

    Double post, but the link you posted in a comment to your alternate teleportation rules doesn’t seem to be working properly.

  12. Justin Alexander says:

    @Muninn: The amount of Dex you add is determined by weight class (light = full Dex, medium = half Dex, heavy = no Dex).

    A few things are specified for advantage/disadvantage. But, at least for the moment, it appears to be primarily a concept for DMs and players to hang actions off of.

    The cantrips include things like magic missile and other stuff that used to be 1st level. It’s hard to make exact judgments without seeing more of the character creation and advancement rules, but they seem to allow spellcasters to compete fairly evenly with the fighters in terms of damage output every single round… and then they still have all the other awesome stuff that their spell slots allow them to do.

    It basically takes a problem that used to only happen if you allowed the 15-minute adventuring day to happen every single day and hardwires it into the system so that you experience it all the time.

    It’s possible that the fighter accelerates at higher levels while wizards slow down. But I’m not convinced that “make the spellcasters even more awesome while the fighter basically stays the same” is something that the game needed.

    The teleport link should be fixed. Thanks for the heads up!

    And I am hoping to get a “Creations” page up on the WordPress site. It’s actually my next goal. Just gotta find the time. 😉

  13. Sebastien Roblin says:

    Regarding the Picador’s comment about “HP as a disassociated mechanic”, I think I can clarify the meaning.

    HP are not literally meant to represent flesh & blood, but also the physical endurance/exhaustion of the characters and their ability to dodge away at the last moment, etc. you know the drill.

    Which means that somehow you end up being exhausted by being hit by a spell, which may or may not have actually hit you, but will also trigger a secondary effect regardless. Healing spells are either reknitting flesh and bone or making you less exhausted, etc. So there’s a lot of abstraction and occasional dissasociation with how the mechanic works, as it explicitly is ambiguous whether any loss of Hit Points is really a direct physical injury or a last minute duck and so forth.

    I know you’ve written on the issue, and I agree that abstract HPs still work well for the game, but they do suggest that we inherently tolerate some significant dissassociations at the core of the game.

  14. Justin Alexander says:

    Which means that somehow you end up being exhausted by being hit by a spell, which may or may not have actually hit you…

    That’s not how hit points work in AD&D. The only edition of D&D they’ve ever worked like that is 4E.

    But, yes, when hit points work like that, it’s heavily dissociated. Particularly painful is the 4E trick of not allowing a character to know what type of damage has been inflicted until after you’ve healed it (at which point you can use the method of healing to retcon the type of damage). Not only is that heavily dissociated, it actively discourages any type of description or immersion in the game world.

  15. Lior says:


    You are confusing abstraction (the grain of the simulation) and dissociation (aspects of the simulation that don’t reflect the laws of the game world).

    Hit points reflect a decision on the fidelity of the simulation: During combat, the simulation tracks the fact that combatants damage each other, but it does not keep track of exactly what the damage is (for example, which body parts were hurt, or in what fashion). All that is recorded is the total damage suffered, as a percentage of the damage that would kill the character. So hit points are not dissociated: when the character hits someone, they lose hitpoints. The harder the hit, the more hitpoints are lost. In other words, the player and the character experience the situation the same way (except that the player knows numbers of hitpoints and the character thinks in terms of harder/weaker hits).

    “Action points” or this “Knack” mechanic also simulate something. They simulate the fact that once in a while the character will really succeed. But they are dissociated because the player and the character experience the result differently. For the character, he simply enjoys wild success some of the time (sometimes an athlete will break the world record, a musician will make a historical recording etc). But for the player, the success is under the player’s control. This makes no sense in the game world. The character will understand that, in a typical day of thieving, he can expect two successes at the level that the “Knack” mechanic gives. But the character won’t understand the limitation of exactly two such successes. Even worse, the character won’t understand why he can count on these successes to occur when he most needs them (unless the world has a very unusual metaphysics).

  16. Hautamaki says:

    Hit Points are not really disassociated because they model something that the character would actually know about and understand: how close he is to dying. Now whether he’s close to dying from exhaustion, poison, some specific wound, etc, is somewhat grey and entirely dependent upon the specific circumstances under which he lost HP, but that doesn’t make it disassociated. It’s only disassociated if it’s something the player knows about but his character would not be able to make sense of in the game world. (Like in 4e why he can only do a certain powerful physical attack move once a day instead of all the time)

  17. Marc says:

    “But I’m not convinced that “make the spellcasters even more awesome while the fighter basically stays the same” is something that the game needed.”

    IMO, the 5e Wiz does look strong at 1st-3rd because his cantrips are a bit too good. However, his ‘real’ (non-cantrip) spells have been nerfed vs. 1e (no scaling, 2 images on mirror images, etc.)

    This design (I think, projecting) will mean the Wiz looks super at 1st-3rd, but heaven help him when he’s still relying on these cantrips at mid+ levels because his ‘real’ spells lack punch (and variety … I know it’s a playtest but where is summon monster, alter self, levitate, spider climb, etc.)

    So, oddly, I see a reversal of the “suck early and rule late” Wiz in 5e (so far).

  18. Bartosz Kielar says:

    About Armours.
    I think that armours should stop give a AC bonus. Instead they should give a DR, and player character should have Defence bonus from a class.
    Some rules about that are already:

    1. I always find strange that AC don’t grow witch Level. You are better in hitting but not in dodging hits?

    2. Heavy armour should be create not for Adventures party but for real battles only. You wear heavy armour when you don’t give a dam that they will hit you because they will for 100% hit you. You want to reduce damage. Heavy armour should lower AC and very much reduce movement, but give phenomenal DR.

    3. Medium and Light armours, (especial light) are for player characters. Is more easy to wear them all the time. They either don’t ore very little restrain you movement.

    Also about Wizard vs Fighter. I agree that Fighters are screw from beginning. Magic missile scale witch levels, always hit have range 100 feet. And wizard can use them always.

    PS. Does only I don’t like High number of HP from start? 20 HP It’s max for dwarf barbarian witch Toughness feat in 3,5 Hir a Wizard have 16 HP. WTF?

  19. Josh says:

    Hmm, not sure about Wizard overpowered vs Fighter. Shocking grasp at 1d8+3 starts to looks sad next to a fighter at 2d6+7 and minimum 3 damage on a miss. Especially when you factor in a an AC 11 Wizard hanging around in melee. Magic Missile may be a little too good if it gets ability modifier added to damage, which the Wizard rules seem to suggest, but which the main spell description seems to imply is not the case ( shocking grasp specifies 1d8+ ability, MM says 1d4+1). If that ambiguity is cleared up, MM is great until you run out of 2HP kobalds. Also disagree about usefulness of 1st and second level spells over time. With saves coming from flat ability checks, low level spells remain effective even against more powerful creatures.

  20. Picador says:

    Thank you all for your input on my comment re: Hit Points being dissociated. I am earnestly trying to wrap my head around the difference between abstraction and dissociation. I still think there’s a real issue here, though.


    So hit points are not dissociated: when the character hits someone, they lose hitpoints. The harder the hit, the more hitpoints are lost.

    I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to trace the idea of “hits” from Chainmail through the various editions of D&D, and I have to say that this is not really consistent with how I understand the system to have been designed. The idea of variable weapon damage as a way of representing a “hard hit” is a very late introduction to the game. Earlier systems were pretty clear that a “hard hit” meant you had a better chance to wound/kill (i.e. a bonus “to hit”). The two-roll alternate combat system, with one roll to “hit” and a second roll to determine “damage”, is itself quite messy and potentially conflicts with a lot of what is written in the early rulebooks about what hit points are supposed to represent.

    I appreciate your explanation about dissociation with reference to the “Knack” and “action point” mechanics: that a mechanic is dissociated if the player and character experience it differently. But I think there’s been a sleight of hand here. Justin’s wonderful essay about abstract hit points is dead-on, I think, but it represents a creative reading of Gygax’s “hit points” passages, a willingness to ignore contradictory statements from the books, and a bunch of house-ruling. Why can’t I re-associate action points or knacks the same way? If hit points are, as Gygax described them, some nebulous mixture of stamina, health, mystical alignment, luck, and fate, then why can’t a “knack” be the same thing? My thief just picked a lock using his once-a-day knack; now he knows that his luck is running out and he won’t have it so easy next time. There, now it’s an associated mechanic. I applied the same kind of house-ruling and creative reading of the rulebooks as we have all already done with hit points.

    I’m honestly trying to bring myself up to speed on the state of the art in OSR thinking on these issues. Please let me know if I’m still off target in my assessment.

  21. StarfoxSFX says:

    I have only skimmed the rules so far, but the fighter ability to always do at least his stat bonus in damage even on a miss really bothered me when I read it.

    The first vision I had was a minion sitting on a bed getting bandaged up by a doctor saying “I swear the guy never landed a blow. I’ve got absolutely no idea how I lost that fight”

  22. Jack says:

    Justin, it looks to my like Magic Missile is the exception regarding “minor magic” — all the others have 0-level analogs (of a sort, they changed Ray of Frost) in D&D 3.X — unless I’m missing something else, which is possible; I skimmed right over the change to Magic Missile until you pointed it out.

    That being said, Magic Missile as a cantrip doesn’t feel particularly broken. But I haven’t finished looking over the MM or DM guidelines yet.

  23. Jack says:


    A disassociated mechanic is one that a character can’t have a reasonable understanding of. In terms of hit points we have an abstraction of vitality and energy and ‘divine favor’ — and if a character doesn’t believe in the gods, well, he ignores that. At the end of the day, he’s bleeding because he got hit, and he’s not dead because he was better than the other guy. It’s reproducible, however you frame the abstraction.

    The trouble with Knack is that it’s ostensibly supposed to represent that the Rogue is good at doing a thing — that’s what a knack is. But it’s not a reproducible model and it doesn’t have a grounding in the game world that the character understands. If asked “how did you open that lock,” the character would say, “I have a knack for it.” When asked later why he can’t open this other lock, though, he has no response. He isn’t LESS capable later in the day because he opened a lock earlier, but by the mechanics he is.

    You can hand-wave it and say it’s a matter of luck, but you’re still disassociating the player’s choice from the character’s experience — the player chooses to use the Knack, but for the character it’s just random chance. The character can not choose to be lucky, but the player must make that choice.

    Disassociation happens when the player’s experience can not be translated back in to the world in a meaningful way; it breaks the illusion of being there, of being the character, and reminds us that we’re playing a game. An abstraction can be disassociated, but they are not equivalent terms (as can be shown by examining hit points, where player and character both perceive the same experience: “I almost died there.”

  24. Picador says:


    This makes more sense to me now. It’s the choice to use the Knack that is dissociated from anything in the game world. In other words, what makes it a dissociated mechanic is that it is explicitly something the player chooses, but which happens to the PC.

    This problem could be eliminated by having the GM choose when the Knack is activated, I suppose. But yes, I think I understand the concept of dissociated mechanics more clearly now. Thanks for your patience in explaining it to me.

  25. Keith Paxton says:

    Are there additional specific examples of the “dissociated mechanics” that can be shared?

  26. WereTeddy says:


    I actually like the Close Call ability, but I can see where you’re coming from. It may help if you remember that a ‘miss’ on the dice roll doesn’t always equal the actual physical swing missing. After all, if an attack ‘misses’ because of your armor, then the armor blocked the blow, but there was still contact.

    It makes the ability a little more complicated, but if it helps you accept the ‘He didn’t hit me so how I did I lose?’ effect, you could always have it apply on dice rolls that exceed the ‘touch’ AC but aren’t hits.


    Except that a knack isn’t ‘being good at doing something’, that’s a talent. A knack is ‘a clever way of doing something’ which to me greatly lessens the disassociation. It covers why it’s a player choice ( “I just came up with a clever idea for getting past this really tough lock!”) and sort-of explains the twice a day limit (because no one has clever ideas all the time).

  27. Jack says:

    @Picador, making the DM choose when the Knack happens might make it less disassociated, but speaking as a regular DM, I would hate it. I’m not sure Knack as-written is salvageable.

    @WereTeddy, that reasoning actually makes it feel more disassociated to me. Again, the player chooses to use the ability, but the character just has it happen to them. And they can only be clever twice a day? And reliably twice a day? It just feels wrong to me.

  28. Seth says:

    I’m thinking about why I’m normally okay with luck re-roll systems but not this knack idea. Maybe the fact that it happens after a failed roll tells the player and character that “I made a mistake but for some reason it worked anyways”, in which case in a fantasy setting most know to either be more cautious after being lucky or to press your luck and go all in (which is what the player has to decide too with luck mechanics).

    But choosing when things are easy seems to be warping the external world, giving the player DM recon powers to say “that lock always happened to be easy even thou it wasn’t before”.

  29. Eric says:

    I generally don’t like disassociative mechanics, but I’m actually OK with the knack mechanic (and action points). I can accept that protagonists in fantasy stories often get lucky when it is most needed, so as to make the story more dramatic. The knack mechanic could just represent the effect of this luck, with the player deciding when the luck is most needed. For example, think of Han Solo navigating an asteroid field when the odds of success for any normal pilot are 3720 to 1. Han can do it because he has a “knack” for piloting that exceeds that of non-protagonists. If Han were a PC, his player would know that he is getting lucky due to the use “knack”, but Han the character would just say that he knows he has exceptional luck in times of need (which is why he never wants to hear about the odds).

    I think this mechanic is different enough from a mechanic that, say, allows a fighter to make a strike that trips an opponent once an encounter, but prohibits him from making the same strike the next round. It would make no sense to the fighter that he can only perform a certain attack one time, but it would make sense to a character that he occasionally has good luck when it is most necessary (at least to a fictional character).

  30. Jack says:

    I guess my biggest trouble with the Rogue’s knack being like Han’s flying (aside from the fact that Han’s flying is probably more like a really high skill bonus, or at least Advantage, in 5E terms) is that Knack says it can be used on any roll. It’s a knack for everything, but it only works twice a day. It fails to make sense on several levels — and “knack” is not a synonym for “luck.”

  31. Eric says:

    Han has a high skill bonus, but he, and many other characters in sci-fi/fantasy fiction seem to also have a greater rate of success when it is absolutely necessary. To return to Han Solo examples, note how Han is able to find a freezing Luke just before Luke dies and is always able to repair his ship right before the stormtroopers arrive or the space slug eats them. If heroes just had high ability scores, why do they always succeed at the last possible minute? Action points or knacks (assuming they work how I think they work) simulate this dramatic convention well. Obviously, they cannot work all the time, otherwise the ability would be overpowered and it would strain credulity (like when the characters in Galaxy Quest discover that the countdown on the self-destruct mechanism always stops with one second to go).

    I know what you mean about the word “knack”. I think of it as the way a character would describe their ability to extricate themselves from a sticky situation. E.g. “Gee, Han, how did you manage to get your ship to work at the last minute?” “I don’t know, I just have a knack for it. I tell the ship ‘Hold together, baby’ and, when necessary, she does.”

  32. ProfessorOats says:

    Seems to me (and I believe Justin said something along these lines in a previous article) that abilities like Knack should be restricted by being the result of a lucky roll or special circumstances rather than via a limited number of times per day.

    I’m just asking for someone to bring up Vancian casting now, aren’t I?

  33. Jack says:

    @ProfessorOats, why, what’s wrong with Vancian casting? Seriously, though, Magic is one place where people accept that there’s some notion of resources that need to be recharged. that’s not generally true with most mundane abilities.

    @Eric, I still disagree. Han and Luke win at the last second because they’re characters in a story. The plot dictates that they win and the author decided he wanted a dramatic climax. I can count on one hand the number of movies I’ve seen where I honestly thought the heroes would fail. Role playing necessarily requires the very real potential for failure, stories don’t. We never see a scene where Han need to pilot his ship well and screws up.

  34. Eric says:

    Having successful dramatic climaxes in roleplaying games are fun. Mechanics that increase their number are not wrong. I am not saying that success should be guaranteed, just that increasing the odds of success can make things more fun (e.g. when success requires a high role, like a 19 or a 20, you kind of expect failure and there isn’t the same tension as when the odds of success are say, 1 in 4).

    I would compare it to hit points. In many sci-fi/fantasy stories, the protagonists rarely or never get injured. The plot dictates that they need to survive and be able to keep going. Failure is not an option. This is clearly unrealistic, given the number of times they are shot at. You could correct this by having one- or two-hit kills (or at least incapacitations) in roleplaying games, so that failure was always a possibility. For many people, this wouldn’t be a lot of fun, so many roleplaying games compromise by including hit points, so that characters can still go on dangerous adventures like characters in a novel or a movie but could still fail.

  35. Justin Alexander says:

    The knack mechanic could just represent the effect of this luck, with the player deciding when the luck is most needed.

    Note: That would make it a dissociated mechanic. When the player is making a mechanical decision that the character can’t understand (because the mechanic has no association with the game world), it’s a dead giveaway.

  36. Hautamaki says:

    In the movies the heroes always win in dramatic fashion because that’s why they made a movie of it. It’s the puddle fallacy. Characters don’t win because they’re in a movie; they made a movie out of it because they won. Because they beat the odds. Nobody will bother to make a movie where the would-be hero gets shot and killed in the first 5 minutes and then the audience gets to look at a black screen and contemplate mortality for the next 115 minutes until the credits roll lol.

    So what does that mean for RPGs? It means that most characters should probably die at some point in the average adventure, and that’s what makes it so special for the characters that live. The characters that live are the ones the movie (in our case, in our memory and imagination) gets made about. But if nobody ever dies, the movie triumph seems ‘unearned’.

  37. Eric says:

    Yes. I agree that the mechanic is dissociated, but I don’t mind it. I don’t see anything wrong with a very perceptive character noting that he tends to get lucky for some mysterious reason when the stakes are high. It would be like a character noting that, for some mysterious reason, he tends to learn things in “chunks” (e.g. adding four skill points to, say, knowledge (arcana) when gaining a level) rather than gradually and that, when he learns more, he also is somehow able to withstand more numerous and/or more damaging blows.

    The dissociated mechanics I dislike are the ones that a PC would almost definitely notice but would make no sense to him or her (e.g. a fighter will notice pretty quickly that he can only do a spinning sweep and knock his opponent down once per encounter, but will have no idea why he cannot execute the same maneuver in the next round).

  38. Sebastien Roblin says:

    To be fair, from reading playtest rules, it seems that the ‘Hit Dice’ rules are Associated with using the healing kit to heal injuries the old fashioned way, and hardier guy heal faster. However, the fact that you choose to spend any number of hit dice seems disassociated. (I also rather think it should be tied to a healing skill, but that’s tangential.)
    At least, they don’t seem be usable in combat like healing surges.

    The full-healing after a long rest rule is quite lame, though. Any decent fantasy sim should be able to simulate a party low on resources scrambling to stay alive in the wild, rather than magically refreshing after a good sleep.

  39. Jack says:

    @Eric, which is funny because to me it makes more sense to say “oh yeah, I can do that Big Attack, but then I’m kind of winded” than to say, “huh, isn’t it funny that I kind of just overnight learned a bunch of stuff?” That being said, if you’re so winded, why can you do all your other neat moves? And if you’re playing a game where Players get to add skill points willy-nilly without some in-world explanation (in my game, that PC had better’ve spent a lot of time in the library during downtime) then I think you’re doing it wrong.

  40. Seth says:

    “The knack mechanic could just represent the effect of this luck, with the player deciding when the luck is most needed.

    Note: That would make it a dissociated mechanic. When the player is making a mechanical decision that the character can’t understand (because the mechanic has no association with the game world), it’s a dead giveaway.”

    Would it be associated if the rogue had to mumble a prayer to the god of Luck before hand? And they get a daily limit of divine favors the same as the Cleric?

  41. Hautamaki says:

    Seth, that’s about how I’d do it. I dunno if it would be a deity necessarily. But if rogues have that kind of ability it should be something metaphysical that they are aware of. Sort of like being Ta’veren in Wheel of Time.

  42. Jack says:

    “it should be something … that they are aware of.”

    Pretty much sums it all up. If the PC is making a choice or consuming resources, the character should similarly be making a choice or consuming resources. If you want to give rogues little magics that may be valid, but I know my group is disgusted as-is about giving Rangers spells…

  43. Eric says:

    @Hautamaki: It would be difficult to run a campaign with any continuity where several characters tend to die during each adventure (but not impossible because Call of Cthulhu GMs sometimes do it).

    @Jack: I understand the idea of being winded after an attack, but it doesn’t make sense when you consider that many encounter powers should be no more exhausting than at-will powers. A fighter can swing his sword and cleave through enemies all day without getting exhausted, but somehow lowering his sword to the level of an enemy’s legs and using it to trip him really tires the fighter out.

    I know what you mean about spending time at the library (or the training) to learn skills, but when I play this is usually retconned (e.g. “Oh, I see your character has gained some knew knowledge, he must have been studying during downtime). Sometimes players do not know what skills they wish to gain until they actually reach the next level and I wouldn’t want to penalize them for not telling me far in advance how their character was learning the skills.

    Also, the saying that a character studied in a library does not explain why the character gains all of their skill points at once. If I spend several hours every week for a month in the library learning about something, shouldn’t my knowledge increase gradually over the month rather than in one big jump when I walk out of the library for the last time?

  44. Jack says:

    @Eric, as far as 4E-style powers, you don’t need to convince me they’re broken. :p

    As for ret-conning downtime, I find that rather abrasive. I expect my characters to have a sense for who their characters are and how they intend to improve themselves. It’s one thing if the players aren’t given the downtime necessary to perform such activities, but if it’s there and they aren’t taking advantage of it, I’m inclined to deny the advancement — or at least delay the point award until they DO perform the activities (“sure, you’re Level 4, but you aren’t getting that extra +4 to Knowledge Arcana until you read quite a few books on the subject.”) I don’t want to do that, either, but it’s more palatable than ret-conning. I AM inclined to penalize them for not telling me upfront how their advancement makes sense in-world.

    Part of this, I think, has to do with the pace of leveling. Lots of games I’ve played in seem to want to level up every session or three. To me, that’s painfully and unrealistically fast, and not only do you not get the requisite downtime to practice and study. Recognizing the leveling is a big reward in the game structure, I feel like it’s lessened if it comes too often or too easily. /tangent

    Your final point is a common criticism of leveling systems, and I think it’s a valid criticism. Making my players justify their advancement in-game *before* they advance is my way of smoothing that issue out. If a character has been studying recently, maybe he gets a small bonus on some of his Knowledge checks, for example. So the advancement makes sense when it happens and it can be portrayed as a more-gradual improvement, rather than a sudden jump. I also think it’s easier to justify going up a single point in a skill rather than suddenly jumping from zero to four ranks, but that’s a separate issue.

    White Wolf’s World of Darkness system uses a point-based system for character improvement, rather than levels. I’ve found it to be less intuitive for players as far as improving their character goes, and it makes it a lot more expensive in terms of mental transaction costs for choosing what and how to advance things, because not every stat you improve means you CAN’T improve some other stat (for some amount of time). Some of that is because on the non-linear progression that they use, but I think it would be very similar even if the details of the math was different.

  45. ProfessorOats says:

    Oops, forgot to answer the security question before

    @Jack: Nothing’s wrong with them, for exactly the reason you mentioned. Whenever I discuss dissociated mechanics with others, they’ll bring up spell slots and accuse me of being inconsistent when I explain the difference. I was concerned the same would happen here

    I know what you mean about the pace of levelling. I’m playing a d20 Modern game right now and we’re already at level 5 after maybe half a dozen sessions :/

  46. Hautamaki says:

    Eric: In my continual campaign about 35 PCs have died so far. The key is to understand from the beginning that people are gonna die, and not to hang your hat on the survival of any individual PC. The plots of the BBEGs continue apace and great heroes will still be needed to foil them.

    And for the PCs who DO live, their stories are all the more epic for that.

  47. Eric says:

    @Jack: I like the leveling system in 3E D&D. I just wanted to point out that it is a somewhat dissociated mechanic that I am willing to accept, just as I am willing to accept a “knack” mechanic. Dissociated mechanics tend to bother me when they are something that a character would notice makes little sense but I’m okay with them if all but the most perceptive of characters wouldn’t notice them. A character that levels up would probably just say “I have become more experienced” and a character with knack would say “I have a talent for extricating myself from sticky situations at the last possible second”.

    As for player downtime, I always enjoy it when a character tells me that his character is training or studying, but my games would become too bogged down if I required it for all skills. A character might have a couple of skill points left over after maxing out his major skills and I wouldn’t want to tell the player “Well, you can take ranks in tumble because your character has been exercising a lot but I won’t let you take ranks in Knowledge (Arcana) unless you wait until we get back to a major city with a library.” Retcons may be abrasive, but I wouldn’t want my players to have to constantly detail how their characters are practicing every conceivable skill they might want to take ranks in just in case.

    An alternative to retconning training would be to say that the character gains knowledge from experience. For example, visiting magical sites, talking to mages and even fighting mages might increase a character’s knowledge. Unless I want to keep detailed track of where I think every skill should be, it will still be increasing it in chunks.

  48. Eric says:

    @Hautamaki: Everyone has their preferred style of play. If your group enjoys thinks that a high probability of death is more fun, then they should play that way. If another group prefers death to be possible, but rare, then they should play that way. Some groups could even enjoy it if death were never a real possibility (due to DM fudging).

  49. Jack says:

    @Eric, “I’m okay with them if all but the most perceptive of characters wouldn’t notice them.” I think those are the ones I find most offensive, because they aren’t invisible to the player.

    As to play style, you’re right — but Knack only works if your style of play is amiable to such a disassociation. As such, it represents a break in the mechanics of the system that is unpalatable if you want a tight coupling between game-world and game-mechanics.

  50. Hautamaki says:

    If you’ve ever read Malazan Book of the Fallen that gives a pretty good idea of the feel of my campaign. Important characters die left and right but there are so many of them =p

  51. Jack says:

    See Also: Song of Ice and Fire. I hear everyone dies in that series, but they still manage to have strong continuity. I bet you could even get a half-decent mini-series out of it, if you got a couple recognizable actors.

  52. Hautamaki says:

    heh heh heh

  53. Mandramas says:

    The problem with the dissociate mechanics are their symbolic nature. You can redime the Knack mechanic simply changing their name. “Luck” is not better, since we can’t identify with the day use limitation. But if the mechanic is called something like “disposable amulet of thieving luck”, “pray to the thief god”, or “tiresome mind effort”, you can solve the problem. Every name, also, expand the gaming universe (“there are a thief god? How is the clergy? How much i’m tired after a mind effort”)
    As a GM, I can handle some amount of dissociate mechanics. I have a dirty trick mechanic, that allow a player intent some weird maneuvers like drop a cushion or a tavern, but it needs to use an “action point”. But in our campaign, a player can “feel” his luck (luck is a force of nature, governed by a Lady of Luck-type goddess). You can retry the dirty trick, but with a heavy penalty after the first time it worked (since, the opponents know the trick and are not surprised by them). Rogue have the class ability to ignore those limitations, and can do unlimited dirty tricks.
    I guess, if you simply explain in your campaing that the PJ can “feel” when they can use the knack and when not, it is not a dissociate mechanics anymore? Maybe rogues taps into a supernatural force like “the Force” in SW universe?

  54. Joe says:

    Would love to see your houserules. Keep up the great work!

  55. Doresh says:

    What’s up with these ACs? I could understand introducing armor that only adds half your DEX modifier (though this severly limits your armor choice), but what’s up with adding the 10 base AC everyone has oO ?

    Unlimited cantrips already exist in Pathfinder, and since Level 0 spells in 3.5 are pretty harmless, this doesn’t cause much problems. But D&D Next’s approach of declaring higher level spells as cantrips seems like a bad idea…

  56. tesseractive says:

    After a whole series of revisions in the playtest materials since the initial release, I’d be interested in hearing what you think of the current version in a followup.

    Things I think are interesting:

    * There’s going to be a very small core Basic edition with very simple versions of classes that’s aimed at the next generation of Red Box enthusiasts. As someone interested in DMing for my kids, I think this looks really promising so far.

    * You may or may not like the core noncombat resolution mechanic as much as 3e skills, but I think it’s both easy to understand and consistent. And I like the current version of skills with the gradually improving skill die and the persistent (decreasing) possibility of failure. I also like the really clear explanation about the scenarios when you shouldn’t bother rolling dice.

    The fact that basically the same mechanic is used for attacks, saving throws, ability/skill checks, and “contests” (opposed checks) — simplifies things even further. Ability score + d20 + modifiers vs. DC or opposed check is basically the mechanic for everything in the game, with advantage/disadvantage that can apply to all of the above. I’m not anti-saving throws, but this is genuinely simpler (without being annoying like the reversal of agency in 4e’s switch from saving throws to defenses).

    * There are a lot of really interesting options for fleshing out your characters, that make it easy for you to rely on either story definition or mechanics (or both). Backgrounds, specialties, the different class builds — you get a wide latitude, and pretty much any of it can be filled in by answering story questions of the form “what do you envision your character as being like?” While you can also customize the living daylights out of your character to collect the mechanical abilities you prefer to play, for less mechanics-focused players this is one of the least dissociated character creation mechanics I’ve ever seen.

    * If the approach to magic items pans out the way they want it to, it might be the first time ever that magic items have seemed as interesting and mysterious to me as when I was working from the 1e DMG. It’s the exact opposite of anti-4e. Encouraging DMs to put in play items like a Dancing Sword of Celestial origin that allows the wearer to sense which way north is but makes him feel melancholy beats the heck out of a +3 rapier of stun.

    * The Basic version is also trying to solve the “I want monsters I can put in play in 10 seconds” problem that 4e was supposed to address, while still making it straightforward for DMs with the time and interest to use the standard edition rules to pick out every last spell the ancient white dragon is going to use against the PCs. There’s still some TBD here, but the best case scenario is that it yields the best of both worlds — a system where novice DMs can potentially just go buy a pack of cards with a monster stat block and a little text on each one and use those to run their game, but those kinds of monsters aren’t the default version for everyone else.

    * You’ll be pleased to know the 10′ pole is back, alongside hammers, shovels, manacles, fishing tackle, soap, and sealing wax. It’s probably best for all concerned, though, that the telescoping 10′ pole remains lost in the mists of time.

    * the current version of Rogue Skill Mastery seems great to me — it improves probability, but doesn’t remove the chance of bad dice. High level rogues do get a dissociated “instant good karma n times/day” mechanic called Ace in the Hole, but as dissociate mechanics go, I don’t feel like it’s all that egregious. If it started to bother me, I might houserule that it’s DM adjudicated — the DM can choose to apply it and hopefully will if things get too bad, but the player can’t metagame *knowing* that he can play that at any particular point.

    * Maneuvers and Skill Tricks seem like fun ways of giving you unique, mechanically interesting things to do beyond the normal combat actions you can take. Without, you know, giving them to you as encounter or daily powers.

    Anyway, like I said, I’d love to see a followup from you.

  57. Hradek says:

    Well one way you could make Knack or Ace in the Hole non dissociative is remove the number of times per day, but make it not a certain thing. Like maybe requiring a wis check or something to be able to focus, or have it cost an action somehow during the round. If it were 3E or even 4e for that matter I would make it cost your free action to try it.

  58. Todd says:

    Any chance you’ll do a follow-up analysis now that the final play test packet has been released?

  59. Justin Alexander says:

    Seems plausible. If not with the final playtest packet, then almost certainly with whatever they end up publishing in 2014.

    What’s hindering that process at the moment is basically an overwhelming sense of apathy towards D&D Next. Eclipse Phase and Numenera are the fancy new toys I’m having fun playing with; 3.5 continues to satisfy my D&D-esque needs. When I initially looked at the D&D Next playtest packet in May last year, it was with the intention of eventually running a few playtest session with it. But I ended up coming away with the real sensation that there was simply no compelling reason for me to engage with it.

    That could easily change, of course. I wasn’t completely sold on Numenera, for example, until a confluence of chance and circumstance turned me rabid about it.

  60. Todd says:

    Even if you dislike it or decide that it’s not your cup of tea, your insight and analysis are always a pleasure to read. The few times i disagree with what you post, I still come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the topic at hand. As such, I hope you do find time to post your thoughts on it, when the mood strikes. As someone who is tentatively excited about Next, I would hope for something similar to your series on 4th Ed and the Keep on the Shadowfell–even if I have a different opinion, those were amazing articles that brought many elements into sharp focus.

  61. d47 says:

    I didn’t read the entire thread, but the discussion of disassociated mechanics made me realize that it was one of the main reasons that I switched from AD&D (1e) to Runequest so long ago. Leveling has got to be the most disassociated thing about the game (and I hate the super-high-level “let’s go kill Orcus” type of play that is inevitable). I much prefer organic and gradual advancement.

    But, I understand the convenience and benefits of leveling and similar disassociated mechanics to the game system. The point is for the players to have fun playing their characters doing cool stuff. Sometimes its more fun and more cool when you can only do something once in a while. This is why I love the concepts of “action points” and “bennies” (Savage Worlds). As the player, you get to decide when it is time for your character to “go all out” or “push his luck” at a crucial moment.

  62. Paul says:

    I’m not sure why you consider the use of hit dice for healing in between encounters to be a dissociated mechanic. They represent tending to wounds, applying herbs, resting, etc. So the mechanic that the player uses corresponds directly to a decision the character makes in the game world. It isn’t hard to imagine that you can only get but so much benefit from these sorts of measures until you take some serious time off to rest and heal (indeed, not even a long rest necessarily restores all of the hit dice). You may or may not like this mechanic, but it is anything btu dissociated.

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