D&D Next Preview

November 20, 2012

We finally got a chance to go through a playtest session of the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and I had a chance to take notes, see how my players worked with the new rules, and get a general feeling for how this new edition will or will not appeal to players.

In my head, however, I just kept screaming “SQUEEEE!”

The Set-Up

I’m part of the D&D Next playtest group, which means I get access to the new materials as they are designed and I, along with hundreds of others, report back what we feel about the new changes.

The new edition feels like a strange hybrid of 3.5 of 4E, a bit like what Pathfinder tried to do, but this one is much more streamlined and open-ended. If you want to skip the technical stuff, read on ahead, but for those who are wondering, here are some major changes from 4E to Next:

  • Class cherry-picking appears to be back. Players will be able to take levels in whatever classes they want instead of having to choose multiclass feats from a single class beside their starting class. This means your fighter/ rogue/ wizard rides again!
  • Backgrounds and Specialties, new optional rules, can provide minor abilities such as spellcasting, contacts, and military ranks.
  • Healing surges are gone, instead replaced with Hit Dice, a pool of dice you can roll throughout the day to regain hit points. Once you roll all your Hit Dice, you better rest for the night to regain them.
  • It seems the “standard pantheon” will be done away with. Clerics, for example, get special abilities based on the god they serve, but these are specifically designated as the Lightbringer, the Trickster, etc. Text indicates this is done so players can create their own pantheons.
  • Powers are gone, instead replaced with both maneuvers and spells. Martial characters like rogues and fighters get to choose from a set of maneuvers which cover everything from reactions, to attacks, to fighting styles, to weapon tricks. Maneuvers have virtually no restrictions aside from what class you have a level in when you can choose one. It seems you will be able to multiclass rogue/ fighter, for example, and get to pick from almost everything on the list. These abilities can be used at will.
  • Vancian spellcasting is back! Fans of older edition will remember the age-old question for clerics and wizards: “Have you prepared your spells today?” Spellcasters must once again prepare spells that are lost as soon as they are cast, but there are slight differences. Characters don’t get extra spells per day based on high ability scores. Instead, clerics become more spontaneous, gaining the ability to cast from a set pool they choose every day. They can cast one spell several times or cast several throughout the day until they run out. Wizards also have the option to choose spellcasting traditions to give them at-will spells they can cast as long as they wish.
  • Solo, elite, and minion monsters are gone.
  • There is an actual condition called “intoxicated,” once and for all eliminating the need to cherry-pick conditions when a player decides to hit the ol’ dwarven ale.
  • Defenses and attacks do not scale up, but hit points, hit dice, and skills do increase, albeit gradually. This means that low-level monsters can still be used at higher levels to function as “minions,” or one-shot-one-kill monsters.
  • One of the biggest changes, and the one Wizards of the Coast will help unite the varying factions pushing for AD&D, 3.5, and 4E, is the fact that the new system is modular. If you’re a fan of old-school, classic D&D, you simply play the game as is. If you want a 3.5 or even AD&D experience, you can bring in the specialties (feats, special abilities, etc), and powers. In essence, they’re broken up the  rules into distinct packages that DMs and players can choose to use to create the kind of game they wish.

Our party was 4th-level and consisted of a hafling fighter, an elven cleric of trickery, a dwarven wizard (academic tradition), and a human rogue.

Their names were, respectably, Chikis, Sadie Moon Blue, Vorg Hammertime, and Kent. Obviously, Kent was the freak in the group.

Now, for those interested in the way this all played out, here we go.

The Good

The game did away with powers and a lot of other crap and went back down to basics: adventuring. Since there are no more encounter powers, the adventure design philosophy went back to a day’s worth of adventures. That may seem academic, but think about it. You can no longer just rest and get your hit points back or get all your encounters again after a skirmish.

This makes adventuring more tactical and much more dangerous. When confronting a single low-level spellcaster and her thugs, the party made a few mistakes and the rogue wound up getting a shocking grasp to the face… and got knocked to 0 HP. After getting healed by the others, he had to contend with a handful of HP from his lone healing potion, his Hit Dice, and the protection of his comrades.

It was a sobering return to the days of clerics (AKA armored first aid kits) and healing potions, and it worked very well. Players knew they could no longer be reckless and just hope for everything to reset.It gave a slight edge over the 3.5 system, but it didn’t turn the PCs into walking hit point reservoirs like 4E.

The simplicity with the system is also a breath of fresh air. We’ve been playing 4E for almost four years now and the group is at 25th level and on its way to fighting gods, primordials, and horrors from Lovecraft’s nightmares, but even at low levels, DMing was a CHORE.

The new streamlined rules are closer to 3.5, but without the baggage or ten thousand monster special abilities. This doesn’t mean the flavor is gone. The orcs, for example, felt like brutes and powerhouses while the bandits still felt crafty, mobile, and sneaky.

One of the biggest changes, though, is the ability to do almost anything you wish with the new Contest rules. Want to flip that table over and knock someone off-balance? Make a Strength versus Dexterity check. Want to grab the guard’s sword in the middle of the fight? Trip someone? Push them? There are quick, easy rules for all of that. Plus, the new edition has the advantage/disadvantage rule. If conditions are very favorable (such as you having just thrown dirt in the orc’s eyes or having flipped said table over to knock someone off-balance), you can roll your d20 twice and use the best result. If, however, you have unfavorable conditions (you’re drunk or just happened to be set on fire before trying to concentrate), you roll twice and take the lower one. It’s a quick, easy way to handle modifiers.

The Bad

There are only four classes out right now (five including the recently-added monk), and the classes only go up to level 10 for the playtest. This, however, is a product of the system still being in development, so it’s forgivable.

My biggest gripe, however, is with the way skills and damage don’t scale up. I foresee a major problem like with 3.5 wherein the players will beat on an enemy for an hour and still only deal a small amount of damage relative to Hit Points. This damage progression was fixed in 4E, but there isn’t anything like it in the new edition. Maneuvers and high-level spells might offset it, though, so we’ll see.

The fragmenting of skills is another. For example, was there a big push to make Knowledge: Heraldry, History, and Warfare skills? Any need to split Perception into four skills: Spot, Listen, Track, and Search? That was one of the nice fixes with the last edition.

Some classes also feel much less adaptable. Without a solid set of at-will powers, wizards and clerics can easily find themselves at a loss once all their spells are expended whereas fighters adn rogues can keep regenerating their maneuvers.

The Verdict

Overall, much more good than bad. The new edition is still in its early stages and things are changing all the time. For example, last month, they released the initial drafts of the sorcerer and warlock builds… and promptly took them back after a huge negative reaction in order to retool them.

At the end of the day, it’s like they took the lessons learned from 4th edition on ease of play and applied them to the customizability of 3.5 while streamlining the whole system. Some parts, like the skills, still feel very clunky, but since this edition is being playtested by fans BEFORE release, I’m somewhat hopeful that the final product will fix most of these problems.

And now, as promised, a few picks from our game. Have fun, and I’ll see you around.

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