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Thursday, May 24, 2012

D&D Next Playtest Review

It's been a little quiet around here you may notice. That'll be because I'm getting geared up to move out of my current place over the next month. So you might not hear much from me until I'm settled in. In the meantime I just downloaded the playtest documents for the latest generation of D&D and I've been giving it a look over and thought I'd share my thoughts. Before I start I should mention that I know there's a lot more info out there than just what is contained in the playtest documents...but at the same time that's obviously all still up in the air and the playtest document is what Wizards is currently using to represent the state of the game as it stands now so I'll stick to it for the purposes of this review.

Part 1: The Basic Rules

So, obviously the real, core material is pretty unchanged. You roll a 20 sided dice and the number that comes up makes you happy or sad depending on circumstances while other dice, with less sides, cheer from the sidelines. This is D&D after all, you're sure to get all your funny-lookin'-dice.

The first few pages are very familiar to veterans of 3rd and 4th edition. You make rolls by rolling a d20 and adding modifiers based on your ability scores and class features. The same goes for attacks, contested rolls, and saving throws. You compare this to a DC (or AC for attacks) to see if you succeed or not.

The first thing that stands out as different is that the numbers we'll be dealing with seem to be significantly smaller. Examining the example characters and the basic rules you quickly notice a lack of something...level-based modifiers. You've got your standard ability score modifiers (codified in 3e and continued in 4e) and some bonuses based on class or race...but nothing based on level. That's quite interesting...and examining the DM's section supports this. A DC 27 check is listed as "Immortal" difficulty, something only demigods are capable of. In third edition 27 would certainly be reachable well before 10th level. Sort of like Ability Checks in 3rd edition, they never scaled very high since they were just the ability score alone. An interesting development.

Saving throws are a bit different. You don't have Fort/Will/Ref saves (or the obscene sprawl of old-school saving throw types). Instead a Saving Throw is just an ability check made to resist or overcome something. So you can have a Strength saving throw (say to resist knockdown or grab a ledge) or an Intelligence Saving Throw that's used to resist illusions or attempts to make you dumb. Also interesting. 

Next we've got Advantage/Disadvantage, a deeper version of 4e's "combat advantage" modifier. Advantage and Disadvantage represent general, vague...er...advantages or disadvantages. I do wish this term was a little bit more elegant, the phrasing (while very accurate) seems a bit awkward. The mechanic is new, essentially you roll an extra d20 on a check/attack/save and take the best (for advantage) or worst (for disadvantage) result.

As I mentioned Ability Scores are pretty much identical to the 3rd/4th edition. You've got all your standard scores and the normal +1 per 2 points above 10 modifier. It seems like they might be trying to avoid extremely high ability scores (noting that 30 is "divine being" level). But overall nothing much new here.

Part 1 reaction:

Okay...so what are my thoughts for the basics? Overall nothing really new but overall positive. The simple, flexible ability score system (using universal modifiers rather than individual charts) and the d20 + modifier vs DC/AC system was one of the best innovations of 3rd edition and it's good to see that it isn't being tossed out. At the same time I like the trend I'm seeing for smaller numbers. Both third and 4th edition got truly obscene with the huge numbers they were throwing around at high levels and I think toning things down isn't a bad idea. Also, name aside, the advantage/disadvantage system is something I definitely approve of. It's a flexible modifier that can be thrown at just about any situation at any level and it'll still be helpful, it seems like an extremely useful DM tool. I do worry it may start to get overused...but we'll see. So far it looks a lot like 3e but with a bit more restraint and flexibility.

Part 2: Exploration

Complex movement/exploration systems has never been a huge part of the D&D experience, so I don't expect much of anything new here. It's stayed almost identical since 2e and taking a quick look reveals it's still pretty much the same now.

A round is still 6 seconds, movement still occurs in units of 5 feet. Difficult terrain costs extra movement.

There's a bit on stealth, mentioning the exact conditions required to hide and it's benefits (namely you can't be directly targeted and you have advantage on attacks you make). Honestly, I feel it goes into far more detail than is necessary on the exact conditions needed to hide, it comes off somewhat paranoid in an odd way, like it assumes that these rules will be abused and is trying to cut off potential weaseling.


As I said, almost no change at all from previous editions. It would have been interesting to see Wizards try something new with abstract movement or similar, but the old tried-and-true methods are just fine.

Part 3: Combat

The good old hacky-slashy. Slaying orcs and smashing...uh...other monsters that rhyme with orcs? Oh, I know. "Slaying orcs and turning corpse..s." Sort of works, eh?

The basic combat system is still quite familiar. Step one: Are you surprised by the horrible thing trying to eat your face? If not, then roll dice, see who goes first. Take turns until one of you no longer has enough limbs left to continue. Worth noting surprise now just gives a hefty (-20) penalty to initiative, rather than a free round. Which...kind of doesn't make sense...I mean -20 is pretty big but it's not unbeatable. Say the rolls work out and the ambusher actually loses initiative...what does that mean? Can the surprised creature attack...even if they may not even be aware that there's someone attacking them yet?

Turns have been simplified a bit. You can move (just move, no "move actions"), take one action (there's a simple list, pretty obvious choices) and take a reaction (that is an action during someone else's turn) which is normally limited to a held action or certain class abilities.

Attacks are still pretty much the same as they've been since THAC0 was taken out behind the shed and put down. Damage likewise. On the outside it's all still very similar. There's a few items of note...critical hits now do max damage rather than a multiplier. This includes all dice making it pretty deadly-sounding but at the same time only a natural 20 is a crit (no confirmations) so there's not much concern so far of "gaming" the critical hit system (although who knows what is to come). There's also two states that are fairly simple: Resistance and Vulnerability. Resistance to a damage type means you take half damage, vulnerability means you take double damage. A quick check on the sample bestiary indicates that this is going to be replacing DR/X by all indications.

Hit points are still around, and you get plenty of them (the 1st level sample wizard has 16). It's interesting to note that Wizards is being very clear that hit points represent an abstraction and you don't suffer any actual physical damage until you're at below half your hit points, and even then it's mostly scratches and bruises. Dying is generally pretty difficult (DC 10 constitution save every round, take 1d6 damage on a failure and three non-consecutive successes stabilize you) and doesn't happen until you hit -(level + con).

Healing is quite fast, obviously inspired by 4th edition's system. Out of combat you can "spend" HD to regain hit points by catching your breath (assuming you've got a healing kit). You heal completely with a full night's rest.

Then there's a list of conditions. Mechanically most basically boil down to different ways to gain advantage/disadvantage on various rolls.

Part 3: Combat Reactions

So, obviously combat is the meatiest part of the system so lets see...

Attack and damage are about the same as 3e (although again with lower modifiers) so I can't much complain, but not much to laud either. I do like the simplicity of the resistance/vulnerability system compared to DR, but the difference is fairly minimal.

Giving extra HP was one of my personal house rules so I can hardly complain about the hefty chunk everyone gets. I also like how getting extra hp with a new level works (you roll HD, but the minimum result is equal to your con modifier). While Wizards tries to justify the massive HP totals with reality by pointing to their abstract nature it still doesn't make any more sense than it did before (magical healing still causes it to recover and presumably things like falling, pools of acid or similarly obviously "deadly" damage is still treated as an abstraction). So basically if you were fine with hit points before you won't have anything to complain about, but if you didn't already like them then you'll probably feel the same way still.

Overall I approve of the "HD for Healing" system and I think we'll probably see it used in various interesting ways like 4e's Healing Surges. While I think that automatically recovering all your hit points with a long rest is definitely simpler (and prevents you from having to squeeze healing out of the party cleric every night) it does drain some of the drama out of injury. Even if you're on the verge of death so long as someone can help you get back to positive hp then you'll be fine in the morning. You'll never have a wounded party limping their way through the wilderness for more than a day before they're back to 100% strength.

The conditions are mostly fine. I particularly like the intoxication condition and the way "charm" has been reduced from the extremely vague "target becomes friendly" to two simple, clear-cut conditions.

Part 4: Equipment

Oh my, electrum pieces are back...for some reason. I'm sure they'll slide quickly back into obscurity again.

It's interesting to see that they're starting out by stating that magic items are "beyond simple gold". That's a heck of a departure from 3e and 4e if it holds up and it'll be interesting to see where they go with that. It makes sense given the more "toned down" nature of the game so far. Not much point in shrinking modifiers if you're just going to send them rocketing with a boatload of magic items.

Arms and armor are the fantasy classics. You've got your d8 longswords and your d4 daggers. We see that things like armor check penalties have been replaced with the fairly simple "disadvantage" system. Then we get a big list of general equipment. All very familiar for the most part, although there are some interesting touches here and there.

Part 4 reaction:

This is probably the shakiest of the sections so far. Which is a bit odd when you consider how little equipment has changed over D+D's lifetime. Unfortunately what they have changed seems to be mostly negative. There's been a lot of people complaining about the relative AC values especially, I can't say one way or another whether or not I agree yet. I suppose it depends on whether you feel a knight in full plate should be harder to hit than a lightning fast rogue in leather...it's a matter of preference really. I tend to assume that the rogue should be harder to hit, but suffer more from those blows that do get through. However, the armor is at the point where the "advantage/disadvantage" system might be getting overused. I'll withhold judgement for now however.

The weapons are mostly okay, although there's some things that look like typos or mistakes (clubs and maces are identical for instance...except that one costs over 10 times as much). In fact, one wonders why anyone uses any basic weapons other than clubs (one handed) or morningstars (2 handed). The only answer seems to be "different damage types", I do find myself missing the little touches in 3e that made a longsword and a battleaxe a bit different.

Part 5: Magic

The magic system is definitely the standard vancian magic that players of 2e and 3e will be familiar with. There's almost no sign of 4e's power system at all. Well, I say almost...

There's two things that harken back to it. There are "minor magics" which can be used at will, without memorization. These are mostly the little spells like light or detect magic but they also include magic missile and the (surprisingly powerful) ray of frost. So wizards and clerics will have a few things they can always cast, even when they run out of their more potent magic.

The other one is rituals. Now, these aren't really like 4e rituals...they're more variations on normal spells. You see, when you have a spell that you know, but haven't prepared, then you can cast a ritual version of it. The ritual takes longer and costs extra gold but it allows you to cast it without memorization.

Then we've got a list of spells that are mostly D&D classics. As of this document they all seem to have relatively fixed effects (another holdover from 4e) rather than scaling with level. So for example burning hands inflicts 2d4 + Int modifier damage. This means they're much more powerful at lower levels but don't scale immensely to higher levels. That's an assumption at least. This could simply be a simplified version for playtest. Many "status effect" spells have a relatively weak standard effect, and then a major effect against anything with 10 hp or less. For example sleep normally just halves your movement until you're injured...but if you have less than 10 hp then you're knocked unconscious.

Part 5: reactions

I was never a great fan of the vancian system, so I can't say I'm thrilled to see it return. But it's a tried and true system that has lasted D&D for decades so I can hardly blame them for keeping it around. I'll certainly manage to live with it. The minor magic rule is an interesting addition (a very familiar one for those who've played Pathfinder) and it means spellcasters are always "armed" to some degree.

I really like the "idea" of the ritual magic rules but there's almost no substance to it yet...only one spell in the playtest document has a ritual version and that spell is Alarm...something you would assume would only have a ritual version. So we'll see how that shapes up when there's more info.

Finally the spell effects themselves are interesting and I think I'm definitely seeing an effort to keep spellcasters from overtaking their mundane counterparts (a common complaint) but there's just not enough material yet (especially higher level material) to really judge success just yet.

It's getting late now. So I'll wrap this up and try and make a second update soon covering the class specifics and giving a final summary.

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