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.