Next iteration

New D&D Next playtest is out! That means lots of reading, making notes, and being snarky. All the things I’ve done with the previous iteration in one convenient package. I’ve rather enjoyed being an ass in my notes in the past, so that’s what I’ll do again. This is an ongoing commentary as I read through the new rules, comparing them side-by-side with the previous version, so it will probably make more sense if you read the files with me. It is also rather detailed.

If you don’t feel like reading the 4000 words or so, here’s the short version: this is a much better playtest. Things got polished, many of the oversights were remedied. But new oversights were made! Of the two significant new parts presented, character generation and encounter building, the latter fails to live up to promises and doesn’t work. Disregarding that, we got a playable game. This one I’d actually consider running a playtest of. Regrettably, it’s still going in the direction I don’t like, but at least now it looks like it might get there.

How to play

  • Everything up to Combat is the same. Which means each ability still has its own saving throw, which is still redundant.
  • It already occurs to me that having changes to the rules highlighted would have been extremely handy. Also, whomever slightly changed the widths of columns in the new pdfs deserves slight change to the width of their playful fingers. The text is the same, the spacing is off, ugh.
  • Ah-ha, here’s the promised Surprise change. Well. We went from “you go last” to “you skip a turn”.  Harsh. Considering lowered hit points, the surprised party runs a significant risk of never going at all.
  • Opportunity attacks! And they hurt, too. But only occur when you move away from an enemy, you can dance around them as much as you like. Makes sense if a battle grid is not used. I wonder if the promised tactical module offers stricter opportunity attacks.
  • Wording of “next to you” changed to “within 5 feet”. Um. Are we ditching the grid, or sticking with it?
  • Disengage being an action means you can’t shift away and charge. Well, that sucks.
  • Reach is no longer a function of creature size. Good.
  • Slower healing variant… is.
  • Frightened condition is much better. It doesn’t force you to run away, but meaningfully suggests you do.
  • Intoxication still grants 1d6 DR, but now makes spellcasting harder. Never let it be said WotC doesn’t listen to feedback! They got scared of all those permanently drunk wizards people threatened to make!
  • Another case of “next to” being replaced with “within 10 feet” in the Blinded condition. We’re not using the map! Unless we are.
  • Mention of psionics has been removed from the magic section. For some reason, this amuses me greatly. The great psionic cover-up.
  • Spellcasting in melee now requires a check to target something or someone more than 5 feet away. That’s 3rd interpretation of the same concept in as many editions. Impressive.
  • Spell areas remain the same. Ugh. Clouds! Cylinders! Spheres!
  • Good news: we can now cancel our own spells. Bad news: it takes an action.
  • Mention of being able to prepare spells at higher level for stronger effect has been removed. That’s unfortunate, it’s one of the things I think has potential, but definitely requires testing.

So, overall: core rules are largely the same, clarified or fiddled with here and there. Nothing terribly objectionable so far, other than the things we’ve already seen before. Moving on.

Equipment

  • This section is more fleshed out, more detailed. Donning an armour now takes exactly 5 minutes, as opposed to 1d4+1 minutes before. It’s the little things, that special attention game designers pay to even the most insignificant details. This means that when we get to maths, its going to actually work this time. Right? Right?..
  • Armour table. Now we’re talking. It’s no longer obviously broken. Mind you, the details are highly amusing. Displacer beast hide is an actual core armour type? Wow, the implications are staggering. Are there farms? Are they a widespread and common threat? Studded leather and ringmail suddenly grew heavier, the latter also became a cheapskate knockoff of chainmail. Banded and splint armours are identical yet both are listed.
  • Heavy armour now causes disadvantage on stealth checks, while medium caps the maximum Dex bonus at +2 (as opposed to halving it as before).
  • If we disregard stupid ringmail, there are basically 3 tiers of armour shown: costing 10-25-30gp, 500gp and 5000gp, with AC going up by 1 per tier. Medium armour is 2 AC points higher than light, before applying Dexterity modifier. Heavy armour is 5 points higher. Therefore, here’s a buyer’s guide to armour. Is your Dex mod +5? Get light armour. Is it less, and are you willing to sacrifice some speed and sleathiness for the absolute best AC? Get heavy. Otherwise, at +4 get light because it weighs less, and at +3 or below stick with medium. This means that AC is likely to be the same for most of the party. More importantly, it means there’s a single meaningful choice present here: to go with heavy armour, or not (provided you have proficiency, of course). I understand it’s traditional to have huge lists of equipment, but why bother? Those tiers of armour might as well be replaced with “each character gains +1 to AC at levels X, Y and Z”. Fake choice is boring. Boooring.
  • Weapons got groups like “sword” or “axe”. They also got moved around, their damage changed, some were removed, some added. Crossbows still suck. Nothing exciting here.
  • Wow, acid and the like now suck even more, as they cost more for the same pitiful effect. Someone in WotC must really hate these one-off “weapons”.
  • Prices of mundane equipment have been changed. They’ve fixed the exploit with breaking a ladder in half and selling two resulting poles with profit – now they yield exactly the same. But! Adventurer’s backpack costs 4gp while its ingredients cost 4.8gp! That’s the reverse of the situation from before: now its adventurers who are swindling poor trusting commoners. Perhaps accounting isn’t WotC’s strongest suit?..

While uninspiring, this is no longer a section to be ashamed of. Progress!

Spells

  • Yay, spell lists.
  • Aid: new, terribly underwhelming, not-temporary-hit-points. Maybe changed combat maths makes it worthwhile, but I highly doubt it, considering damage remains the same.
  • No ability modifiers to damage (or healing) for spells? From one extreme to another…
  • Arc Lightning no longer attacks AC, instead its targets make saves. Consistency is good.
  • Augury. If there ever was a ritual spell… yet its ritual version takes longer to cast. Why mess with the perfectly working rituals of 4e? When it says you must “prepare additional material components”, does it mean they’re consumed, or do you just need to have them around? In other news, what an utterly useless spell. Should we go through this door? The magic 8-ball says “maybe”. But I seem to recall it was about the same in 3e, so there’s that. Also a cleric spell. Coincidence?
  • Also, I’m sorry to say this, but 1-5 on d20 does not, in fact, equal 20% probability.
  • Battle psalm: less fluff, static bonus to damage, can now hit people when casting it. A decent buff.
  • Cause fear: aaand they’ve reneged on Frightened not forcing you to flee. Why do you give me false hope, Next? Also, that’s a combat-ending spell. Strange that it affects all creatures regardless of their maximum hit points – probably an oversight.
  • Mind-affecting spells now care about  maximum hit points, not current hit points. Good, we no longer need to beat people up to charm them. That said, why not have it keyed to target’s level, then? Why is a beefy ogre harder to charm than a wiry goblin? Seems like their own innovation is backfiring.
  • Comprehend languages no longer requires caster to grope the speaker! I feel that’s my personal contribution to the subject.
  • Consecrate is unexpectedly amazing. Enter dark crypt, throw vial of holy water on the ground as you cast the spell, run out, bar doors, wait a bit until the howling subsides.
  • Mention of dispelling is removed from continuous light. Isn’t that interesting.
  • Counterspell as an actual spell. What. Why. 3ed’s counterspelling was unusable, but this is hardly any better. It either fizzles, or causes another spell to fizzle, consuming your next turn in either case. An un-event. You spend a turn not doing anything so an enemy won’t do anything. Worse yet, an NPC does that. Suck it, wizard, were you here to have fun?
  • Wow, crusader’s strike went from an excellent  hour-long damage buff to a single attack damage buff. Talk about downshifting. Makes more sense as a 1st level spell, I guess.
  • Daylight still mentions countering and dispelling. Something tells me it was copy-pasted.
  • I cast dispel magic on you! I counterspell! D&D is still terrible at wizard duels.
  • Divine favor is another one of the cast-and-hit cleric spells. I’m detecting a theme here.
  • Flaming sphere is an amazing minute-long source of extra damage, in addition to the nice initial burst.
  • What’s that? Inflict wounds spells aren’t completely worthless? Not sure we can allow that. Is actually better than crusader’s strike in most situations.
  • Ah, lightning bolt. The uglier, less popular cousin of fireball. I can conceive of situations when it would be preferable, sure, but seriously: did anyone actually use it? I suppose that’s why it does extra 1d6 damage… or is this an error?
  • Mage hand can now fly into the air, as high as we wish (within 50 feet of the caster)! That’s fantastic! That’s what we’ve been waiting for. Now this is true D&D. No? You didn’t wish for that? Well, someone clearly did.
  • Magic missile no longer automatically scales with caster level, but maybe we’ll be able to prepare it in a higher slot? Would that even make sense for a minor spell?
  • What I said about inflict wounds? Yeah, as a 1st level spell, ray of enfeeblement does a bit more damage, at range, with a hefty rider.
  • Ray of frost is no longer terribly abuseable.
  • Remove affliction is horrible as a combat debuff-remover. Yet another one of “undo” spells, except high level, specific and weak.
  • Searing light does less damage, but still does extra damage to undead. Haven’t we covered this before? Isn’t that what “vulnerable: radiant” is for? At least it’s no longer specifically weak against constructs.
  • Shield and shield of faith now both grant half cover. Goooood. They do listen. But SoF no longer can be cast as a reaction for no discernable reason, making it significantly worse than shield.
  • Shocking grasp no longer cares about what armour the target wears (good), and now prevents them from using reactions. That’s not terrible, and may even be worth its own status effect.
  • Silence no longer causes all casters to make Int checks. Instead, it makes them “ineffective”. Ineffective how? Ineffective completely? Ineffective 20% of the time as in 3e? Tell me! Why aren’t you answering? Why so sil… ah.
  • WHAM. Can you feel that? That’s the nerf hammer coming down on sleep. Yeah, cause fear all the way.
  • Stinking cloud is significantly better than fireball, even without 4e’s ability to move it around.
  • WHAM. That was sunburst.
  • Hello, thunder wave. I wonder if you’ll make any sense without a grid.
  • Turn undead is not an uber-spell of undead ownage anymore. Now it only owns undead with 25hp maximum hp.
  • None of the spells thus far shown require Str, Int or Cha saving throws. Almost as if those didn’t make any sense in the first place.

Again, overall improvements are noticeable. Several glaring oversights were fixed. Some of the fluff has been trimmed. I wonder if there’ll be a unified system to raise the max hp of creatures affected by raising spell level – it’s almost consistent already. Otherwise we’ll be swamped with greater this and lesser that.

DM Guidelines

  • DCs got reduced by 3 across the board. I wonder why. It does mean that DC19 is something “only especially talented individuals need even try”. Um. My d20 goes to 20, what about yours?
  • A note on DMs cheating with DCs, how nice. While sensible, it defeats the purpose of having a simple DC system in the first place.
  • Ability thresholds letting characters auto-succeed have been removed. Good, they didn’t work.
  • Hmmm. Abilities are now primary when doing anything, skills are mentioned in an “oh, by the way” capacity after DC examples, and only for some of the abilities.
  • Also, skills are now again hard-linked to abilities. What Next giveth…
  • Dexterity’s hazards mention failing to disable a trap, but it’s Int that handles traps now. Ooops.
  • And because skills are secondary now, we no longer have a breakdown of “exploration” and “interaction”. I actually liked high-concept divisions like that.
  • Colossal size has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Again.
  • Drowning rules are not at all thought out. What does the DC 13 or higher Strength check to stop drowning represent? Pushing to the surface? What if you’re tied at the bottom of the lake, and still make it? Nope, no longer drowning, back to holding breath I guess.
  • Encounter building. All that talk of balancing for adventuring day, not individual encounters? Forget it. All that talk of flat maths and being able to keep using low-level monsters? Weeell, you didn’t really expect that to hold up, did you? You can, just don’t expect them to do much. Oh, and monsters 3 levels higher? Yeah, they’ll eat you. This is less flat than 4e. Of course, I haven’t actually looked at monsters yet. It’s entirely possible all these guidelines are rubbish, sorry, “being playtested, please don’t use them”.
  • “There is no assumed amount of … magic items. You can give out as  many or as few rewards as you like, though you may want to adjust the adventure difficulty.” How shall I put this delicately… That is the definition of “assumed amount”.  Magic items are either inconsequential, or they affect characters’ strength. Former option is terrible, latter means they affect average encounters those characters can take on. You provide guidelines on what is an average encounter for each level. Assuming you didn’t just find those numbers in your navel (a strong assumption), you had to estimate what kind of magic items the party would have at what level. And you’d better tell us at some point, not hide behind “do whatever” bullshit.
  • Huh. Rate of gold gain/encounter grows linearly with level. That is an important design decision. It would be nice to know if it was deliberate, or is even going to stick around.
  • Also, once I find how many encounters it takes to level up, we’ll know when we can gain the next tier of armour. Hint: at this rate, not very soon.

Again, things got reogranized, abilities got emphasized over skills; encounter building, the thing they’ve promised will be innovative, is old and disappointing. It’s a playtest, you say, it’s not yet ready? What are we playtesting, then?

Creating a Character

  • Starting characters get 150 gps? Seems like it’ll take them at least a level to double that initial investment. Adventuring life doesn’t pay.
  • There’s Neutral and Unaligned? I guess the latter is reserved for animals or elementals. Still, splitting hairs here. But we can’t deny there are elements of 4e in Next now.
  • So, instead of promised 10 levels of advancement we’re shown xp needed for 5, and 5th doesn’t have special features. Whatever. But what is going on with that xp progression? Here’s a handy table:
level average encounter xp xp needed to level up encounters needed to level up profit this level
1 165 650 3.939394 49.24242
2 295 1825 6.186441 154.661
3 425 3525 8.294118 311.0294
4 555 7975 14.36937 718.4685

What kind of botched copy-paste job is this? It’s not from 4e or 3e, I’ve checked. What are those values, why are they such? Is there any kind of sense to it that I’m missing?

Going off this insane table, by level 4 we’ll be able to afford a tier 2 armour (+1 to AC). Tier 3 ain’t happening any time soon.

Classes

  • Classes give bonuses to abilities.
  • Single digit hp, yay.
  • No bonus spells from magic ability.
  • Clerics prepare spells, but spontaneously spend spell slots. Not bad.
  • Attack bonuses and spell DCs grow with level. That seems rather redundant, as everything’s already tied to abilities and they grow. Except they’re capped, to enable flat math. But bonuses still grow. Make up your mind!
  • Basic channel divinity is a heal, but domains let you modify its uses.
  • Domains appear to be a decent way of specializing a cleric.
  • Fighting styles are just a pre-set order of combat maneuvers fighters learn. Good for quick character generation and newbies, but is basically a throw-away feature: people will just pick and choose their maneuvers.
  • Combat superiority: fighters get their own dice pool, in which they can play while wizards overshadow them. Looks interesting, provides build options and resource management. At higher levels it will be more flexible than 4e at-wills (and that’s what these are). Good new feature.
  • I wonder why channel divinity isn’t handled similarly: it’s also some extra dice clerics can spend. They can be limited to daily recharge, but it should be trivial to let them manage these dice as they see fit, spreading them between healing or smiting or what have you.
  • For that matter, sneak attack could also work in a similar fashion. They did mention they wanted to give rogues alternatives, not lock them into sneak attacking. So let them have their spendable dice pool, too, let that be a thing Next does.
  • Rogue’s skill mastery means they’ll never get less than 16 on any of the skills they’re proficient with (more at higher levels), which is a hard DC nowadays. They don’t even need to have a good score in corresponding ability. That’s way too much. Because to create any semblance of drama associated with dice for them, DMs would have to set their DCs to 17 or more – which is a very tough check for the rest of the party.
  • Optimizing skill monkey rogues would therefore pick a background which gives them skills tied to their weak abilities (and so not at all rogue-like), and rely on their high stats to handle the rest. Something tells me that’s not what the designers had in mind.
  • Sneak attack requires advantage. Befriend a fighter with Jab, let them distract an enemy with their action (while jabbing them), do your ungodly extra damage. Profit.
  • Oh, rogues get an extra background. So they’ll have 6 auto-win skills from the start. Oh, and they can give themselves advantage on checks. And their favourite stat is Dex, which is still the most important stat in the game. So if the party helps, they own combat in terms of pure damage output, and they own the other two pillars, exploration and investigation by virtue of having insane skills.
  • Wizard’s spell DC is higher than clerics, as is their magic attack. That’s a fairly explicit message to clerics not to bother with anything other than buffs or healing.
  • Flat out “no armour” for wizards.

Backgrounds

  • As before, background traits are fluff. Nice to have, but not really noteworthy.
  • Holy lore skills, Batman. Looks like a humongous skill sink for a wizard.
  • 3 Dex skills, 3 Wis skills, 5 Cha, and 14 Int, of which 13 are lores. Str and Con get no skill associated with them.
  • As expected, unless rogues want lores, they can skip Int entirely, as long as they grab skill training in Find Traps. Important stat, indeed.

Races

  • Races have 2 sub-races (obviously more can be easily added later), and each sub-race grants +1 to one stat as well as a minor ability.
  • Racial weapon training is a thing. It increases the size of damage dice of particular weapons. Although increasing 1d12 to 2d6 is not particularly impressive.
  • Low-light vision is trivially negated by having a lit candle nearby.
  • Humans are special. They get no sub-races and no weapon training. Instead they get a massive boost to their stats: +2 to one, and +1 to every other. So out of the gate, they’ll have 1 more in every stat than anyone else. Hardly seems balanced.

Specialties

  • A.k.a. themes. They’re officially just a thematic collection of feats. Which is, again, nice for newbies but not at all worth it for experienced players. Pity, this could have been a good way to personalize the character further.
  • Feats are again given out every 3rd level. We’re back to not having many feats at all, which means we’re back to throwing out any feat that’s not essential. And no classes that we’ve seen give bonus feats, either.
  • Can we pick and choose our feats? Even if the rules say we can’t, I think players would rebel and house rule it. Probably a safe assumption that the first feat in a specialty is a prereq for everything else, though.
  • Attacking twice for half damage is very uninspiring. Basically, you can kill rats better.
  • Sadly, and this was expected, the design space for feats is not at all defined. Some provide static bonuses or skill training, others grant entirely new actions or even an undead servant. Which means that some characters would have 7 extra actions to choose from by level 20 – in addition to the multitude of choices they’d already get.

Bestiary

  • Monster presentation has improved. Actual stats – not so much. They’re still boring. That said, creatures in 4e MM1 also suffered from this, so there’s hope. Mind you, 4e monsters have since improved significantly – why does Next has to go through the same learning experience?
  • And now we get to the really troubling part. Monsters have XP and levels listed for them. Why are there two measures for monster toughness given? And if for some reason we need them both (we really don’t), why the hell are they conflicting? Goblin leader is a level 1 elite (which is not defined in this edition) worth 210 xp; gelatinous cube is a level 2 solo (again, meaningless term) worth 200xp. Its level is higher, its role is (presumably) more dangerous, but nope, 10 xp less. Dark accolyte: level 3, 270 xp (Also, 9hp. Haven’t we learned anything about one-shot spell-casters?); dark priest: level 3 elite, 260 xp. And yes, dark priest is significantly more dangerous. And so on and on. This was one of the two big things presented in the new playtest. And they screwed it up.
  • Finally, so as not to leave this on an entirely negative note, Mob Tactics. It’s an ugly way to simulate ganging up, as one monster becomes a leader telling every ally to hit its target. That is if mob tactics doesn’t stack. Rules say magic bonuses don’t stack, and this is definitely not magic, but common sense would dictate it still obeys the restriction. If, however, this bonus stacks… Just imagine. A fighter gets surrounded by a kobold cheer squad, 17 or so of them. They chant, they wave pom-poms, they squeal, they all use mob tactics. The fighter is very confused. Forward steps the champion kobold. He stretches. He waves at his adoring fans. He cracks his neck. And then takes a single attack with +17 bonus to attack and damage, and bites the fighter in two.

Conclusion

And there we have it. As I’ve mentioned at the start, I like this playtest much more. I still don’t like the system it playtests, though. But seeing many of the problems I’ve pointed out in the previous posts (as many others have, too, I’m sure) fixed gives me hope. It means the playtests actually accomplish something. And so this feedback I’ve spent the last 2 days on will not be entirely wasted.

Of all the things we’ve been shown so far, combat superiority is my favorite. At first the problem I had with it was, paradoxically, that it didn’t feel like D&D. But that’s a good thing. It means WotC’re willing to try something new. And my suggestion would be to extend that metaphor of personal expendable dice pool to other classes, channel divinity or sneak attack or wild magic.

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