So, earlier today the next playtest packet dropped and I've been going over it. I'll provide my thoughts on it piecemeal. I'll just start with the very first thing I pulled up:
So, I mentioned in the last review that D&D Next was doing something interesting beyond the usual class/race combo. Basically they're providing a set of generic "lenses" to adjust your character. Backgrounds were one and they're basically a set of semi-generic "pasts" that you can tack onto your character which is what determines their starting skills and grants some secondary ability or trait. Basically ways to show that a "Sage" Wizard is different from a "Charlatan" or a "Noble" Wizard and backgrounds are in no way class-restricted so you could easily have a "Sage" Fighter or a "Bounty Hunter" cleric.
Now, I'll start off by saying that going into this I very much wanted to like Backgrounds, they're great ideas. I also can totally see where Wizards is going with them and it's a truly laudable thing they're attempting. You see, aside from providing some starting skills each Background also has a Trait representing some special benefit associated with the background. Traits are not like your traditional Feats or Kits or anything, they aren't a set of bonuses to X skill or ability to ignore Y penalty or whatever. They're abilities that are meant to aid in roleplaying a character and encourage it, rather than being strict mechanical bonuses. It's a very cool idea and it's something that's very refreshing to see after the...let's say heavily systemized...4th edition. So definite karma points for good intentions.
Sadly Backgrounds fall short in execution...the biggest problem is that they're ignoring what the word "background" implies...that is something from your character's past, how they were raised or trained or shaped by their past. Most backgrounds want to remain firmly in the present and that's a problem when they're still technically mechanical abilities in a living, breathing narrative like D&D or any other roleplaying game.
So what exactly is wrong, well the "starting skills" work fine. They make perfect sense. A "Bounty Hunter" gets Spot and Stealth and so on. Works fine. It's the Traits where the pooch starts to get nervous about it's prospects. For example, the Knight background means you get recognition for your rank and station and free lodging and food from nobility and the like. Okay, well that's all well and good but...what happens if you stop being a Knight? You commit a crime or you're framed or you just decide you don't like the direction your king is taking the country and decide to set off on your own (like some sort of ...adventurer or something.) Then you end up with one less ability than your friends have. Likewise...what happens if a Soldier acquits himself exceptionally well and is raised to the station of a Knight or a Noble...well shouldn't he logically get their Background abilities? After all, they're based on your place in society not your upbringing...so what does that mean? Do you lose your current background? do you now have two? What about your skills?
The Commoner is probably the worst offender in this regard. Their special Trait is...they have a house. Basically they get a house and a small amount of land and the service of an NPC apprentice or servant to tend it while they're away. So...what happens if you go wandering and never return (how many adventurers do you know who are likely to stick in one place for that long)...what if it gets burned down when a vengeful dragon shows up or you piss off the wizard next door? What if you just don't want to live in the little podunk village you grew up in anymore and say "screw it, I'm going to be an adventurer!". And it's pretty sad too...because a Background like commoner has a lot of potential...a simple farmer who is forced into a dangerous life or who is called upon by king, god or fate to go forth into the dangerous world. Frodo and Bilbo, Rand Al'Thor, Richard Rahl, Shea Ohmsford. I could go on naming fantasy protagonists pretty much all day. And what does that mean for everyone else if the Commoner needs a Trait to have a house...is the craftsman homeless? What about the Noble?
And that brings me to the second problem with Traits is that they are wildly unequal. There are some that have abilities that are damn useful for the entire lifetime of their character. A Sage's ability is a great Trait it not only is extremely useful it's basically an endless plot-hook generator. But others don't age nearly as well. For example, the Noble gets a collection of three minor, non-combat servants with no discernible skills or abilities. Now sure, an extra pair of hands and eyes could be helpful and having someone to deliver messages is moderately useful for the lazy adventurer...but really when you've got 10 or 15 levels under your belt it's not very impressive. The Commoner may be lording his oh-so-fancy cottage over the heads of his homeless Knight and Noble friends but after a few adventures I'm pretty sure any PC worth their salt can afford to buy themselves a house.
The very worst is the Thug. You know what their special ability is? A bad reputation. First off, even ignore the problem that A) a reputation is meaningless outside of the area it's established in and D&D characters are often wide-ranging folks and B) a reputation for being "a bit of a dick" is rather easily supplanted by a reputation for "killing dragons" or "saving kingdoms" it's still terrible. The Trait basically boils down to this "you can commit minor crimes and get away with them...because people are frightened of you". Sure, at level 1 maybe you can afford some extra healing potions because you bullied some free meals out of the local inn or broke into someone's barn to nap...but even in the most lean and frugal D&D campaigns I can't imagine characters above level 3 or so needing to save the extra half-gold piece by dicking over a shopkeeper on 50 foot rope.
Here's a quick summary of the good vs. the bad.
The Good: Sage (probably the best), Spy, Soldier, Thief and Priest.
The Bad: Artisan, Knight, Bounty Hunt, Charlatan, Noble.
The Worst: Thug, Commoner
Obviously I doubt anyone from Wizards is going to be reading this, let alone heeding my words, but nevertheless these are my opinions:
1) The ideas of backgrounds as both a means of making a character unique and providing plot and roleplaying opportunities is a great idea. HOWEVER
2) Backgrounds should not restrict the GM or players. The GM shouldn't have to worry that plot events are going to actually remove a character's abilities (by burning his house, taking his title or even giving them a new one) and players shouldn't feel like they're now tied permanently to "who they were". A 1st level fighter who was a brute and a bastard and is defined by his "Thug" background is fine...but as that fighter's story moves on he should be able to move past that and change as a person.
3) Traits should definitely not be something that any other PC can duplicate with nothing but a fistful of cash. anyone can buy a house. Only someone who has spent years in study could be considered a sage.
That is all. I see a lot of potential in D&D Next, but here's hoping the rest of the game works better than Backgrounds do, especially the other "lense": your Specialty.