My thoughts on the D&D Next playtest rules

D&D logo Yesterday the D&D Next playtest package has been made available – at least for the lucky few who were able to download them. It seems WotC’s bad luck streak when it comes to all things digital hasn’t ended yet. A part of the problem is obviously that they didn’t just make a download available, but it seems all steps in the process are run through their website’s account system which can’t handle the current traffic. As with a lot of things that happen at WotC, I get the feeling the whole process was dictated by lawyers.

But let’s not dwell on that and have a look at the playtest rules. The ZIP file you get includes a couple of PDFs that include an adventure, five pregenerated characters, rules for the players and some DM guidelines. It’s definitely enough material to run a few playtest sessions, especially since you get some information on how the character develop during the first three level.

The rules themselves have surprised me a lot – and in a good way. You may remember my stance on D&D 4th Edition. I still think it’s a good game, but just not something I enjoy playing. For me it feels more like a miniature skirmish game. Again, I am not trying to bash 4E here, it’s just how it feels to me.

The editions of D&D that I played the most were D&D 3E and 3.5. But when playing I definitely preferred the early levels, because things were still pretty fast, easy and fun. With every new level, new feats, new abilities etc. the game slowed down (especially in combat). I eventually reached the point where I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

Only recently I discovered the OD&D retro-clones and got to like them. And in a way, the D&D Next playtest rules remind me a lot of these retro-clones. At the core it almost feels like a slightly tweaked OD&D with some interesting additions. In addition to race and class characters now can have a background and a theme. The background grants your character a couple of skills and a background feature that usually has no solid mechanics behind it, but it’s something more of a fluff effect. The theme further describes your character and grants you a feat. And from what I’ve seen the times of feats that just grant you a minor bonus are gone. The feats in the playtest rules give the characters new abilities that can give them a significant advantage in certain situations.

One new mechanic that I like a lot is Advantage/Disadvantage. Whenever your character has an edge he has Advantage, which means you’re allowed to roll two d20 instead of one and pick the highest result. In the case of a Disadvantage you pick the lowest result. This mechanic is used extensively throughout the game. This almost completely removes the need for modifiers throughout the game. Nice.

What I am not too fond of is the return of Vancian magic. But we don’t know if there will be variant magic rules in the final product. Spellcasters will at least be able to use a number of minor spells at will. Your wizard will never run out of magic missiles again. 🙂

Saves are also different. Instead of three saves (Fortitude, Reflex and Will) we now have six: one per attribute. I am not sure if this is actually better or worse than what we had before, but I guess I will find out when I actually play the game.

All in all I am positively surprised by how the new edition has turned out. It feels much more old-school than I ever would have expected. A lot of 4E player seem to dislike the changes though. That is not much of a surprise because D&D Next seems to be a rollback into a pre-4E era. But we don’t know how the game will develop until release and there might be ways to make it more like 4E again, if the DM wishes. Even the current playtest rules show some examples of D&D Next’s modularity.

One question remains: Why should someone who is already playing an older edition of D&D or Pathfinder pick up D&D Next? I think it’s way to early to answer that question, but it will be one of the factors that decide whether D&D Next will be a success or a failure.

Update: While I am actually quite happy with the rules themselves, I am not happy with the way WotC handles things. The whole registration process for the playtest is a mess. The fact that people who actually signed the agreement can’t use Skype, email, Google Hangout etc. to run games even though this is not mention in the agreement itself is silly. Also if you want to run it at home, you can only do so if everyone involved has registered online. I actually wanted to run D&D Next for my regular group but I am not sure if I can make them all sign up. Not everyone is comfortable with that. Again, Paizo’s handling of their playtests is way better. WotC’s main problem seems to be that the lawyers run the show, not the design team.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

20 thoughts on “My thoughts on the D&D Next playtest rules”

  1. Next will be played by 3e, 4e or OSR gamers because:
    – You can game again with your friends who like a different edition
    – Your friends with whom you game that like a different edition will stop complaining at the game table
    – It’s still supported
    – It’s the current edition of D&D (okay, that one was lame but it will drag some gamers to it) more ideas at the moment.

  2. After reading through the package (which took me about a few hours to actually download), I liked a lot of what I saw. I like how simple the rules seem to be, but leave a good amount of room for customization.

    The only things that I didn’t really like were how humans seem to get no noticeable bonuses or penalties and the over-abundance of hit points. Other than those two, I have very few grievances with the playtest rules.

    With that being said, I don’t see this uniting everyone under one edition like Wizards wants it to. Many of the people playing prefer the older editions of D&D (like myself with Pathfinder) will ask ourselves, “Why should I buy these rules when I already own my preferred ‘flavor’ of D&D?”

    Also, I wish Wizards would stop shooting themselves in the foot. They could have just had us sign into their website, sign their little agreement, then download the package. However, they had to make it a confusing mess and that was just going to make them look bad in the end.

    1. I agree. I have been saying all along my main contention with 5e is there doesn’t seem to be a reason. If it ends up being a book with all the rule 0e-4e what’s the point. Grognards have the retroclones. 3e-ers have pathfinder and a few other OGL.

      If there is nothing new in 5e then I have these rules already.

    2. It appears that humans get a +1 to all six stats… definitely a nice enough bonus to keep humans in the running during character creation.

  3. I’ve read the playtest package yesterday and couldn’t find a single reason to even try it. Yes it’s retro clone. A huge step backward. Such a shame. 🙁

    1. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I like that they went back. 4E was not my kind of game. But I can understand that you’re not happy.

  4. I am, for one, quite fearful for the future. Yeah I understand it is not a finished product, not by a long shot. But after reading through it, I see that most of what I didn’t like in older edition were coming back, and a lot of what I liked in 4th edition going away.

    The warrior, as it stand is a bore to play (of course I know you can think out of the box, pushing people with a contest, throwing picies of furniture, and so on and so forth).

    “Oh, here is an enemy, what might I do ?” *check the surrondings, the character sheet for thing to do* “oh well, i swing my sword at it”. Next round, *swings*, next round, *swings”. repeat ad nauseum.

    I don’t really like this. I know we are promised more thing to do, but yet again the fighter is treated like cannon fodder. 4th edition did have a lot of things right concerning fighters and martial classes right, even if people with high simulationism mindset will tell otherwise.

    The thief is a little better, at least there is the sneak attack. And he will be able to throw his own weight for all the exploration and maybe the interaction with npc. The fighter seems pretty poor too in that aspect.

    The wizard, I mostly like, because it’s there we see the most remains of 4th edition (the at will minor spells). We’ll have to see how it plays out exactly and where they go with this.

    The priest, I don’t like from a mechanical perspective the armored one. Seems to close to the fighter. But the pelor’s one seems okay to me. Closer to the wizard.

    I’m not too sure about the advantage/disadvantage rule. There was nothing wrong with a flat +2 when you have advantage.

    The scales of xp for monsters seems a bit odd. I don’t really understand why a Troll or a minautor, with their large reserve of hit points, their special abilites rate so low on xp’s. Or why bugbears rate so high (4 bugbears gives more xp than a lonely troll, even if the troll has 10 time more hit points than a bugbear.) That’s mainly a minor problem I think, and not even in the scope of the playtest.

    I know it’s fairly long winded, but here is the thought I have reading the playtest material. I don’t intend to play it before we see character creation rules, to see if some of the problems I have are mitigated at that point.

    I have not given hope with 5E, but for me, it looks like a wrong start.

    1. The fighter doesn’t look to me boring at all. If the fighter player isn’t able to come up with interesting maneuvers if there are no fancy powers to pick, he/she’s just doing it wrong.

      1. Imagine a dungeon crawl, with rooms after rooms. Bare rooms, no furnitures, just some monsters to fight. Tell me what a fighter will do ?

        Look I understand why you feel it’s not boring. And I agree, with a good DM, there are ample ways to vary things. The thing is, it all become to despondant (not sure of that word, english is not my first language) of the quality of the dm to propose various situations. It becomes a bit elitist.

        Good rules provide good tools for both players and dm an equal chance to have fun. Presented like this, I feel that the fighter is largely kept away of having fun compared to the various possibilites the other classes have out of the box.

        I might get better with later modules, or not.

        1. You could still choose to do any of the manuevers of the powers without them. You dont need a power to tell you what to do. In fact they just limit you to a set of actions instead of allowing almost anything.

    2. I found the fighter interesting enough to be the first class I will play during our playtest this weekend. However, I think the important part is not whether we agree on this, but that you let your concerns about the fighter be known to WotC. For all we know, enough people may share your sentiment to make WotC reconfigure that class. After all, I think, that is one of the objectives of a playtest; to give feed back where necessary so that they have an opportunity to fix something they don’t realize that most people feel is broken or unenjoyable.

  5. I’m loving the old-school feel. I’m loving that combat wont take an hour. I’m loving that the rules are far less complex. I’m loving that healing is tougher, so damage means something. I’m loving that the adventure is a rewrite of the first game I ever ran. It won’t make everyone happy, but I’m pretty pleased and knowing the way my gaming group play I think they’ll like it too.

  6. I’m intrigued on the first read through. The mechanics seems straightforward, the math simple. The emphasis on players choosing actions rather than activating powers. (Yet there is room for powers later should that be your preferred playstyle.)

    Based on hints and rumors I had already adopted the ability-focused skill check system into my homebrew rules. It looks promising that there will be enough innovation and clarification to warrant purchasing D&D Next!

  7. I think it is still to early for someone like me to comment on the game mechanics. I do think that you hit on a solid point though. The handling of the downloads was done poorly and sadly, I think this is a sign that D&D5 will not be offered as a PDF download either. Which is a shame.

    Good post though. Can’t wait to see how this develops. I would love to play an RPG at my gaming table called Dungeons & Dragons again.

  8. I had no problems with the download itself. Apparently, however, I got one of the first e-mails and the links were wrong. I contacted customer service and they sent me the correct link. The server was overloaded, I suppose, so I had to wait until 7PM. No big deal, I was at work all day. Once I got through I signed into my account and voila! I had my download.

    As for the rules themselves, they seem to be a blend of old and new. I haven’t run the game yet, but am happy to roam the halls of B2 again as I look at the mechanics. I like the monster presentations. No huge blocks of data, just a couple of lines giving me the relevant information. Looks like they found a way to keep the Healing Surges (yuck). Mostly, I like the current simplicity. Keep the rules straight and simple. Many would-be players have been turned off by the library of rules even when I tell them that I know most of them already and all they have to do is answer my questions and roll some dice. Fortunately, things don’t look so integrated that you can’t throw out the parts you don’t like without collapsing the whole system.

    These are just my current opinions, so don’t chisel them into stone just yet.

  9. “Also if you want to run it at home, you can only do so if everyone involved has registered online. ”

    I thought that line in the agreement meant the players wouldn’t be involved in the feedback not I that I couldn’t have them at my table.

    lol. Come on over Wotc and make sure to check the IDs of all my players and their birth certificates too I might be flying in illegal immigrants to test this game.

    As far as the Ad/Disad mechanic wait til you roll a natural 20 and 3 have to take the lowest. It’s simple, but I don’t think it is fun.

    I also think this is a 0e punched up a bit, some people say it’s 3e, but where are all the skills.

    1. Totally agree! The guys who sit at my table are generally not the sort to go registering for things online. In fact, one avoids going online as much as possible to avoid getting himself into trouble! (Picture someone who looks like an extra in “Sons of Anarchy” playing an elf…)

      Your remark about Ad/Disad is right on the mark. Unless they throw in something like “A nat 20 or nat 1 on your 1st die cancels out the other die”, I won’t be using this mechanic. It would suck to pull off an impossible shot only to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory by a second die roll.

      And again, yes. I’ve played 3e and this feels closer to the old school than it does to the 3rd edition style.

  10. Just ran some combat, group is taking break to go get snacks, etc. Combat, nice and smooth. Kobolds are still tasty, one even hit Rocko. One player thinks it will be easily backwards compatible to older editions, so we’ll be able to play old modules in Next, and Next modules in 2e. Time will tell, but so far it’s not bad. Have yet to experience a “WOW!” factor.

  11. What can I say… I like what I see, but realize this is a first look, and the final game may change, that there will be many fiddly bits and pieces we have not seen yet. I like it BUT I’m guardedly optimistic. While I enjoy a retro-clone I am not playing any, I love Pathfinder and must admit I love the fiddly bits and more complex options.

    I WILL play it, probably in two weeks since travel and work seem hell bent on keeping me busy (not complaining about the first one) but this will not interrupt my regular game, so it will be a special occasion.

    I am not a fan of the idea that you can’t run it via Skype or Google hangout either and that you are not supposed to run it for people who have not registered, that means half my regular gaming group, maybe more, will not get to play test this officially…

    I realize that as a company they are protecting their IP but it seems extreme and ill conceived because it does not garner good will. Minor thing, but I want to support companies whose policies I agree with and this makes it hard.

    I’m nitpicking and ranting, so I will shut up now, back to vacationing, later!!!

  12. It seems a lot, and I mean A LOT, of people seem to have forgotten the idea of D&D Next at its core. It is supposed to be a bare-bones rules system, so it’s not going to be like 4E, or 3e, etc. It is the LEGO base, if you will, that all future module-bricks can be built upon. The whole concept was an initial foundation for a modular game, as discussed in their PAX Seminar.
    I am looking forward and am so far impressed.

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