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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!