In the three days since I put them up, my notes on D&D Next playtest materials have become the most read post on this blog. Hot topic, eh. It has been pointed out repeatedly that while observant, they’re too sarcastic and childish. I’d say there was a clear warning saying these were personal notes and not an analysis, but obviously that wasn’t communicated clearly enough. Failing that, I’ll do the next best thing: I’ll write the actual analysis that I said I wouldn’t. Yes, I’m caving it to peer pressure. And yes, I fully expect this post to get only a fraction of the views of the previous one. On with the show.
Let’s start with the quality of the playtest itself. It is rather low. As far as first impressions go, it’s a pretty bad one. Note that I don’t say so because the rules are basic and many of them are missing. WotC warns of this from the start, and it makes sense to test out core mechanics before moving on to optional modules. That is why I don’t begrudge it absence of any kind of tactical combat rules, for instance. They will likely be a module in the core book for those like me who care for it. Rather, I begrudge it the fact that the basic, core, cut down rules they ask us to test, and which they’ve already been testing with a limited audience are inconsistent, vague and not at all thought through.
(Dis)advantage is neat, but too powerful for a go-to effect for any combat situation. It’ll typically give an equivalent of a +5 bonus to a roll – compare it with the +2 bonus provided by Combat Advantage in 4e and similar things in 3e. The penalty from disadvantage is large enough that I would seriously consider not attacking at all that turn.
Things that should be the same, mechanically, aren’t: shields, magic and otherwise, have 3 different implementations. Shouldn’t Dodge action give disadvantage to attacker, instead of +4 to AC and Dex saving throws?
Why is the equipment section even there? We don’t need to test it to see it has major issues. We can’t test it because there are some unseen bonuses at work in the characters’ sheets.
On and on the list goes. It’s not what I would expect from half a year’s worth of effort from several experienced game designers. Rather, this feels like a labour of a 15 year old kid who read the core rules of one of the editions (not 4th) and decided he can do better. I’ve known such kids. I’ve been such kid. There’s a reason such D&D-killers go nowhere.
But enough of picking on the playtest. It’s quality is, hopefully, not indicative of the quality of the resulting game. I have many issues with it, but they all come down to one thing: design goals and methods that can be gleamed from it (and from the various preview blogs on WotC website, obviously). Rules are the way they are not because such rules will make for the best possible game. Rather, they are the way they are primarily to remind players of older editions. Once you realize it, everything starts to make a horrible kind of sense.
Spell areas of effect that have little distinction between them, aren’t utilised by the spells in the playtest, yet are all written up. Electum pieces. Time to don and remove armour. Time it takes to memorize spells each morning – always fun for the rest of the party to kill 2 hours while the wizard fuels up, only to nuke their spells in one fight and demand a rest. And if you only have a single fight in a day, fighter’s ability to keep doing damage is going to be completely overshadowed by wizard’s blasting. What’s the bet wizard will be able to out-skill rogue, too, once they have a full complement of spells? Who needs Pick Lock bonuses if you have Knock.
Spell duration measured in minutes: a nightmare to keep track of, especially at higher levels. Monsters casting spells as players. Problem is, standard spellbook loadouts they would have in MM are going to be far from optimal, at the very least because players will have access to splatbooks. Would DMs have to create their own spell lists for each monster? As someone who’s spent 6+ hours making an 18th level spellcaster NPC for a 3.5 game, only to have them die in the first round of combat, I have zero interest in doing so. Not to mention analysis paralysis – you thought picking from 4 possible actions for a regular monster was too much in 4e? Try 50.
Speaking of spells, rituals in 4e did a wonderful job (especially if you fiddled with some of their costs and casting times) of offloading utility, exploration spells from wizards’ daily lists and into a separate mechanic which doesn’t have to compete with combat choices. At a glance it seems like the same is happening in Next, too, as applied to Vancian magic. But why are PCs being punished with higher costs for using spells as rituals? Extra casting time should be enough. No one is going to prepare alarm if they can help it, as long as there’s burning hands or grease to be had. Why is the game forcing its players to choose between fun and utility? Because having your cake and eating it too is not the oldschool way, I guess.
It looks like monsters are built and advanced like player characters. If that is the case, the liberating, time-saving approach of 4e has been thrown out. For what? The benefits of this old simulationist approach, namely being able to fine-tune to a minute detail the stats of anything and anyone the PCs meet and being able to determine who would win in a fight, a commoner or a cat, are completely overshadowed by the drawbacks. Namely, the need to fine-tune to a minute detail the stats of anything and anyone the PCs meet if you’re changing them at all, and the fact that a cat would in fact win.
Saving throws are not mechanically different from ability checks, and even the rules are confused about this. Yet they are there. Why? Because older editions had you roll a saving throw versus being hit with a fireball. The innovation of tying a saving throw to each ability leads to all mental saving throws doing the same thing, and perhaps serves to demonstrate those abilities are not that necessary.
A brief detour
Some people have been arguing for abolition of abilities as they are now, and replacement of them with modifiers they grant, as that is the only thing that actually matters in game. Why stop there? Imagine if the 5e designers looked at the trouble they’re having with justifying saving throws tied to each stat, and cut down on those stats. Merge Strength and Constitution into Fortitude, rename Dexterity into Reflex and combine Intelligence, Charisma and Wisdom into Will. Three stats, three defences/saving throws.
For that matter, get rid of AC as such, it stopped making sense a while back. Why is a single arrow an attack vs AC but a bunch of arrows target Reflex instead? If an ogre wants to slam a fighter with a club it targets AC, but if it wants to slam the fighter and push it back it’s against Fortitude. Instead, allow defenders who’re targeted by generic vs. AC attacks to choose which of the three defenses to use… unless the attacker has an advantage over them, or uses an attack that targets a particular defense. Monks and paladins don’t need special rules dispensation to have Will as highest stat. Different kinds of armour could provide bonuses to different defenses.
There you go: recognizable, streamlined, easy to convert to, never going to happen. Just imagine the outrage.
Back to Next
The really stupid, maddening thing is, most of these problems have been discussed before, as 4e was about to come out. They were acknowledged as such, and solutions were implemented, to varying degrees of success. What changed? Definitely not the problematic nature of these rules.
All those little things in the playtest which have nothing to do with playtest itself, and are purely there to show that D&D is going back to its roots. I don’t mind them. I don’t mind Vancian magic as a concept. If people want to play such characters, they should be able to, just as I should be able to ignore it completely in my games – except I won’t be able to. While I have little doubt there will at some point be rules for, say, sorcerers and runepriests, which operate similarly to 4e arcane and divine spellcasters, I worry they won’t get nearly enough support, as PHB2 classes in 4e can attest.
Too much of this new system is there purely to appease the lapsed customers. Not being one of them, I don’t see much of value there. Beholders are iconic and uniquely D&D. They fit in the context of heroic fantasy game, they resonate with the sum total of fantasy fiction. Saving throws are a mechanic which should be examined, modified or discarded, as befits the game. Vancian magic is uniquely D&D, too, except it doesn’t appear anywhere other than the Dying Earth books. It has little value to someone who’s never played D&D.
But the game isn’t for these people at all. The playtest adventure clearly shows that. I’ve made my feelings on it clear. Someone on the internets said it can be thought of as an ecosystem rather than a conventional adventure. Except it’s not. An ecosystem requires defined interactions between its actors. It would be one if goblins paid tribute to orcs by stealing from gnolls, who raided nearby villages to offer sacrifices to the dark god of the cultists, thus causing villagers to in turn pay tribute to hobgoblins to protect them, who prefer to bully goblins rather than deal with gnolls, thus driving goblins to search orcs’ protection. I can make this up because I have a decade of DMing under my belt. But if I got this “adventure” in my first year, I would have had no idea. I would have run it as a straightforward dungeoncrawl, because that’s what it has to offer. And it would have sucked, because it’s not meant for that.
That’s a huge problem. This edition (so far) is not even trying to win new players. It’s going after the ones who were left behind. The ones who used to play AD&D or D&D or BE. The 30-40-50 year old ones with families and obligations. It has little to offer to 15 year old kids interested in the hobby but nostalgia they don’t have. It has little to offer to me because I don’t feel nostalgic about things that didn’t work. Unless the designers change their priorities, it will be a game for fans of D&D, and old D&D at that, not fans of fantasy roleplaying games. It’s not bad that Next tries to reach out to those who used to play D&D before. It’s bad that it does so at the expense of everyone else.
To end on a positive note…
All that said, there are interesting ideas in the playtest. Race-class-background-theme relationship is the stand-out. All the talk about player empowerment could be good, if they provide rules and guidelines for it in addition to stating you can ignore rules.
And that’s about it. Can’t think of much more. Sorry.
One thing that people keep praising is how fast the combat goes. That’s hardly a compliment. Take 4e 1st level characters and monsters. Halve their hit points. Restrict them to at-wills. Remove tactical combat, including flanking and opportunity attacks. There you go. Fast combat. It may even be fun, but its fun comes from the drama inherent in dice, and from the drama of the narrative, as well as from the shared experience. Its mechanics are dull.