Dungeons and Dragons Next and the End of the Playtest

So, the last playtest packet (10/14/13) has been released by Wizards of the Coast That means that from this point on all playtests will be done in a closed manner, in house or among handpicked volunteers. (Pick me, pick me!)

I’d like to both discuss this particular packet and how I feel about Dungeons and Dragons Next as a whole in today’s post. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

So let’s have a discussion.

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General Thoughts on Next

I’ll admit to being deeply excited for D&D Next. I’m a bit of a D&D addict, so regardless of how I felt about the edition I would be buying it and trying to play it at least once, as a collector y’know? Luckily for me a lot of the design decisions and stated goals have been right up my alley, especially in regards to designing your own content for your game.

To catch you up a bit, here are articles written by Mike Mearls, the lead of the project, about the design goals of Next.: 1, 2, 3, and 4. His Legends and Lore column on the D&D site is the best way to learn about the state of the game, as well as his twitter (@mikemearls) for quick questions and answers.

So as you can see (if you read the links), the game is designed to scale in complexity. This is evident in things like classes in the latest update, as you have some subclasses that are easier to play and others with more complexity. So you can sit down at a table with people who enjoy both sorts of characters and play together.

I like the stated goal of trying to bring everyone around the same table and sort of breaking the ‘schism’ in the D&D fandom, though I am unsure if the steadfast stalwarts on all sides will even care, especially if they’re enjoying the game they’re currently playing. Also, it’s going to be really hard to TRULY bring together the way 4th edition played with the way 3rd edition played, and etc. The schisms are definitely along the lines of narrativism (more story and character oriented play) and director style mechanics (mechanics that rely less on narrative and more on out of game strategy), so this particular goal I am wary about really working. However,  if the edition can make good on it’s promise to be welcoming to new players and accommodating to veterans at the same time then there will be no dearth of players.

To get into the nitty gritty of the packet itself, I’ll break it down into some highlights of my likes and dislikes:

Classes

It seems that the plan for classes is to keep the number of them low, leaving a lot of the different flavors and nuances in a new class option system called the subclass structure. Subclasses are essentially a more defined flavor for your class, letting you decide what kind of Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, etc. that you want to be. So you will pick a class, and then around level 3 you also get to choose a Subclass to further define your character.

What this means is instead of seeing the number of classes that 4th edition had, we’ll have what seems to be around 12 (it was 10, but due to feedback they decided to make Sorcerer and Warlock separate classes instead of being under the Mage umbrella), however a lot of the more narrowly focused classes will show up as subclasses.

For instance, the Avenger in 4th edition is represented by the Avenging Paladin subclass in the latest packet. There are a few differences, and of course a lot of the kinks are being worked out, but this subclass is representative of what they are going for. This is where the scaling complexity is seen, as well, with what seems to be each class having a simple subclass, more representative of maybe the OSR style of class, with other subclasses having more options or tactics available to it, though all of them being balanced (hopefully) against each other. This allows for two different kinds of Fighter players to sit at the same table, if they can truly bring what each of them want into the subclass structure. I’m optimistic.

I love the subclass idea. I think that keeping the number of classes small is a wonderful idea for game balance, and having subclasses opens up a lot of flexibility as well as room to include setting specific character types in source books. I’ve enjoyed all of the subclass choices in the packet so far, and I think that upon seeing the real deal when the game is released people will agree that this will be what really defines this edition of the game.

There are some criticism that I think is worthwhile for subclasses. Thus far, it seems like the subclass makes up about 30% of the class mechanics, give or take for certain classes. I feel like this should be at the very least 50%, but preferably more, to really differentiate the subclasses. Only time will tell, however, if I am right or misguided in this.

Feats

In 3rd and 4th edition, Feats were a way to further specialize your character with small options. In those editions, though especially 4th, these choices seemed to give benefits that were ephemeral at best, which isn’t fun when you have so many to choose from. When you spend a good amount of time choosing something, you want it to have depth. I believe feats lacked this in the last edition.

To combat this, in the Next play test feats were morphed into whole packages of benefits. One feat now packs much more of a punch, and does multiple things or benefits in multiple ways.  In many cases you can almost see this as multiple feats from the last edition sort of melded together. So instead of having like Power Attack and Weapon Focus, you will instead have Weapon Master that gives you two or three benefits with the weapon you choose. Feats like Arcane Archer, Charger, and Fencing Master should give you the idea that a feat is now almost like another kind of subclass, outside of the class structure, though of course much smaller. Their new power, however, definitely feels like they flavor your character much more than they used to.

What I dislike about Feats, however, is that they are tied to Ability gains. Every so often when you level, you get to choose whether to take an Ability Score increase or to take a Feat. They made it this way because a portion of players dislike the idea of feats, and in this way they know to make sure a feat is worth a whole point in a ability score. I can understand the why, but I feel like this is a weird solution and would simply prefer for feats to be an optional system module rather than tie it to scores like that.

Skills and Proficiencies

When the playtest first began, it was clear from the onset that Ability Scores were going to be the main engine of d20 rolls, and that skills were going to be small bonuses that represented training. In 3rd and 4th edition, because of how skills worked, you tended to not try something that would use a skill if you did not have a high score in it. In 5th edition, they seem to want the Ability Scores themselves to carry a bit more of that weight. This means a person with a high strength should be adequate in strength related tasks, even if he lacks certain proficiencies. A lot of this comes with the base DCs for tasks, which seem a bit lower than in the past to cover this.

The proficiency system is both replacing the skill system, but also growing beyond it in some interesting ways. It almost harkens back to 2nd edition. Essentially, your character can gain proficiencies, usually through his chosen Background. These backgrounds represent your characters past, and are a neat way to begin the game with narrative flavor. Your character will have proficiency in certain skills, like Perception or Search, but they can also gain proficiency in different tools and weapons. If you have proficiency in something that you use, like a skill, tool, or weapon, you get to add your Proficiency bonus to that roll. This bonus depends on your class and level. It’s essentially like the Base Attack Bonus of earlier editions, but is now used in noncombat situations as well.

This system seems to me a very simple and elegant way to represent training. It doesn’t have the same bloat as earlier skill systems, and you’ll rely more on your base abilities, but they seem to be a bit more abstract than the small list from 4th edition. In fact, I don’t believe that there is a set list of skills, which is fantastic because in the past this made players feel like they had a limited number of things they could do

Even more exciting, is that while certain skills have a recommended ability to be used with, I have read that they intend for players to have the ability to use certain skills with different ability scores if it makes sense. Take Intimidate, for example. Traditionally it is a Charisma skill. However, in this newer system if it is implemented in that way, you could ask your DM if you could break a chair or a smash a table in to intimidate, thus using your Strength instead of your Charisma. This opens up a lot of flexibility I believe, and will motivate people to think outside the box.

General Play

For the sake of time, I’ll try to wrap up with my impressions of play. The very first thing that stands out playing this version of the game is the speed of play. Fights last minutes. Everything seems to be so agile, it’s almost addictive just for that. Being able to clear a dungeon or multiple encounters in one session is such a huge change, and takes a lot of the fatigue out of prepping before and after.

Where does this speed come from? The simplicity. Most rolls are d20 + ability score. The other rolls are d20 + ability + proficiency. A lot of the combining 3 or more factors to come up with your roll is gone. Enemies have less HP and AC (as do the players), so fights are fast and brutal.

I like the Magic system so far. It is a hybrid system, using At Will powers called cantrips as well as Vancian daily style spells that are powerful. I think this is a happy medium, and I can see certain classes focusing on one or the other (I’m looking at Warlock and at-will cantrips here). Some people won’t like the Vancian stuff, I know, and there is some clunkiness with the whole “these are the spells you know, this is the number of spells you can cast everyday, this is the number of spells you can have prepared a day…” that I feel like can be simplified without too much drama. Really, I feel like classes that can cast spells should have a number of spells per day they can cast, and that’s it. No need to prep them or anything. Simply pick out of your spellbook and go. I do think all classes, even divine classes, should need a spellbook or similar, with a limited number of spells in it, and thus part of their growing power comes with adding new spells to their spellbook/prayerbook/songbook. That’s just me though.

Modules

One last thing I’ll talk about is something that worries me. That concerns Modules. In the early and mid stages of the game, the idea of Modules was passed around a lot as a design goal. Modules in this sense meant optional rules system that DMs could lay on top of the game, to change the way certain things worked or to add completely new things that maybe other DMs didn’t want. In this way, using modules, you could sort of have a mechanical way to make your game unique. The modules on my blog are about what I expected (though much better quality, of course, for I am an amateur). These modules could handle the differences between settings like Dark Sun and Ebberon, as well as add in things that some players have always wanted like a Spell Point magic system.

This was at the beginning the most exciting thing for me. It still is, in fact. But they’ve stopped talking about it! That makes me a little sad. Luckily the rest of the game seems to be shaping up in a way I like, but I really hope they start talking about these Optional Rules Modules soon. I have a feeling, however, that this idea was a bit more idealistic than actually doable. We shall see.

What do you think? Any highlights I missed? I would love to spark a discussion, even if you vehemently disagree! Drop me some comments and I will most certainly reply. Thanks for reading!

8 thoughts on “Dungeons and Dragons Next and the End of the Playtest

    • I did a lot in 4th edition. A lot of them were useless or boring, and you had to shuffle through hundreds of them. It came down to if a feat didn’t give you a simple numerical bonus, it wasn’t really worth taking.

      I think it was like that to a lesser extent in 3rd edition, though the ‘power levels’ of classes made feats viable for longer, and you generally got more of them. The feats in 3rd edition that were great were generally the Martial and a Metamagic feats. Fighters and Wizards got all the best stuff.

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    • Oh, unless you mean who complained about feats at all. A lot of the old school OSR crowd damn them as too “gamey”.

      But they’re all old grognards. I love feats myself, and I especially love the new bigger feats from 5th.

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  1. I’ve also followed the playtest, and while I didn’t have much opportunity to try things at the table I’ve been reading the updates. I really want D&D to make a come back and succeed again, because it was my first RPG and will always have a place in my OG heart. But I think you are right when you say an improved D&D still might not be enough to pull folks away from the games they are playing now. I like what I’ve seen of D&D Next, but while I’ll grab the rules when they release I have no plans to drop my Pathfinder campaigns in favour of it.

    It will be interesteing to see how the game industry landscape changes, though, when D&D 5th releases. Interesting times ahead!

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    • I think, at best, if DnD Next is good enough, people will throw it into their mix of games if they play multiple games like myself.

      But for those that play in one campaign of Pathfinder, like once a week or less, it’s going to take a lot more than what we’ve seen to get them to come over.

      I think it’ll be easier to get those who play 4e to make the switch, as I don’t see them as loyal to that particular ruleset as those who play Pathfinder are.

      Of course I could be completely wrong. Like you said, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens either way!

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  2. OM! I am so out of it – I didn’t even realise this was happening! lol. (Yes I do live in a techno-void!) At the moment we are getting on well with 4e (having ‘tweaked it’ to suit ourselves, of course.) but this Next does sound like it has some advantages. I’m sorry but me and my husband ARE some of those ‘oldies’ who moaned about feats – so aggravating to spend so much time deliberating over feats which are either all the same, don’t do what you expected or don’t seem to enhance your character within their class. We were also a bit perplexed over the way they organised the abilities within the classes which seemed to limit rather than liberate the characters. So (although I’m loath to spend MORE MONEY!) I am pretty tempted by this, after reading your article, not least because of the speed of play which has also been another frustration (especially we’ve found newbies to the group find the mechanics very confusing and gaming becomes very laboured.) What I’m interested to know, is how easy it will be to lift established 4e characters into a Next game – obviously you get pretty attached when you invest months/years in them – and what about the old paragon paths/destinies, will these carry over at all?
    Wow, essay over! Glad I found you though or I would still be sitting in the dark! Blessings on your week, Bia 🙂

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    • You should definitely check out the packet, then!

      As far as conversion of 4e characters, I’m not sure how you could do that beyond simply remaking the characters, though the actual game isn’t released yet so maybe they have something in the works for that. Like I said a lot of the 4e classes are being shifted to Subclasses of the more standard classes as well.

      I hope you get to play and enjoy the beta. I think it’s very fun.

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  3. This is a helpful analysis. I’ll be honest, I baled out during the middle of the play-testing phase. There were aspects of the game that I found potentially fruitful (such as keying the resolution mechanics more tightly to attributes), and I did appreciate the attention paid to speeding up combat.

    However I was very much turned off by what Justin Alexander has termed the “dissociated Mechanics” (http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/17231/roleplaying-games/dissociated-mechanics-a-brief-primer) I saw popping up in class features and feats. This had been a deal breaker for me with 4e and also caused me to forgo buying into some of the latter Pathfinder supplements.

    I do think your analysis of the future market of the industry is correct. I don’t expect to see 5e drawing a substantial following from any previous edition (the 4e crowd I’ve met seem to be pretty loyal to that edition). I don’t think that Paizo is in any threat of losing its new-found status as the flagship of the industry. However I do expect to see 5e gain a moderate following of loyal devotees. I’m curious to see if this following will have a large enough base to offset the fact that likely many from the 4e crowd will not be making the transition over. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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