Wow, crazy – this might be the last of my reviews of a new playtest packet. Or not; there are a number of notes in this packet that suggest that it isn’t quite as final as they’ve claimed, such as the reference to additional paladin paths coming out… eventually. Anyway, the change log for this packet is freakin’ massive (though uncommonly detailed), with extensive changes to most classes, a new class, a lot of new races, a total overhaul of the whole approach to skills… look, it’s a big deal, okay? The single biggest thing is that the math is overhauled – I’m pretty sure this is the math overhaul they’ve been on about for, what, six months or more? There’s an inherent scaling bonus, based on character level, that applies to anything where you can claim “proficiency” – weapon attacks, saving throw DC, skills, saving throws (if your class is proficient), I don’t even know what else. Anyway, let’s start this up.
There are five new races, but the important thing as far as I’m concerned is that they removed elven immunity to charm (knocked down to advantage on saving throws) and non-magical sleep effects. Actually, I’m curious: how many sources of magical sleep are there in the game, to which the elf is immune? The Bestiary turns up araneas, beholders, green hags, and rakshasas, along with a huge number of sleep-immune creatures, while the Spell List turns up only the sleep spell itself and the Magic Item list has nothing at all. So it can matter in the game’s long-term, since most of the people and things that cast it have the option of casting with a higher-level slot to affect more hit points’ worth of creatures.
Dwarven stonecunning is cut way down in its function, going from being kind of interesting but rarely applicable to less interesting and even more rarely applicable. At least it retains the immunity to getting lost underground. The rest of the long-standing races saw little change, but we have five new races – kender (fuckin’ kender… kleptomania does not make for a satisfying group experience), dragonborn (thumbs up), tieflings (thumbs up; I wish there were aasimar too), drow (sure, whatever… I’m interested enough in reworking the drow racial backstory that I like having rules I didn’t have to write), and warforged (more like 4e warforged than 3e).
What I notice about the new races is that they have a smaller number of more significant traits. This is both good and bad – good because it’s easier to both remember and focus on the smaller number of traits, bad because I had gotten interested in the idea of marking some racial traits as “natural” and others as “cultural.” (Obviously, this doesn’t work with humans, who have only one thing to take away, but I’ve always disliked D&D Next’s rules for humans.) You could potentially sub out the Warforged AC bonus for some other kind of chassis modification (as happened with Warforged variants in 3.x), though I’d need to put some thought into exactly what +1 AC is worth in the bounded-accuracy environment. There’s nothing in the dragonborn or tiefling that really suggests itself as culture rather than physiognomy. Anyway, that’s my notion, not theirs – I can’t fairly knock WotC for not meeting a goal they weren’t pursuing.
The class changes aren’t a massive new vision. This is an iteration on the last packet’s classes, plus an overhaul to every kind of skill. Let me start, though, with the growing problem of D&D Next class design: a hardline approach to simplicity and ease of use for new players is in tension with the common desire among experienced players for a new character choice of some kind upon leveling. With multi-classing in the game now (on which more later), you can choose to another class, so there’s that level of customization. As long as you’re staying within a class, though, you make some skill choices at first level, a Path choice at third level, and unless you’re a bard, mage, or monk, all of your choices from there on out are ability score or feat choices. This highlights the problem with giving classes a different number of ability score/feat choices; some classes get to make an interesting decision more often. The best I can hope for in class design at this point is that a later rules module offers a radical new approach to classes and customization.
I have touched on proficiency bonuses already, but let me go back to that. I have read a lot of comments in D&D Next discussions, and 4e discussions for that matter, that people don’t like how a rogue or a cleric often has the same hit chance with an attack as a fighter does. These viewpoints interpret attack bonus as skill with weapons, which is a misunderstanding of what the game is asserting by setting these numbers to be equal. Yes, attack bonus signified skill with weapons in 3.x and earlier editions, but we’ve left every part of that dynamic behind. Attack bonus is the gatekeeper, if you will, for ability to contribute to an encounter; since missing usually means you make no progress, it’s maddening to think of a rogue or cleric just being 25% less likely to have a useful round of action.
4e and D&D Next carry the thematic concept of superior skill with weapons in the number of extra attacks a fighter gets, extra feats (regrettably), and a wide variety of weapon-based tricks (Weaponmaster path) or passive bonuses (Warrior). It all comes back to making melee attacks a valid use of cleric’s turn, not a distant fallback option that has no particular hope of success. The other thing they want to avoid is situations where an encounter either challenges the combat monster and rolls over the rest of the party, or bores the combat monster and challenges the rest of the party. Bounded accuracy is their solution.
Another weird thing about proficiency – because of this rule, saving throw DCs for spells add upward from 8 rather than 10. That is, all classes’ spell DCs are 8 + relevant ability score bonus + proficiency bonus (unless you’re a paladin or ranger, in which case you have no way to apply your proficiency bonus).
Proficiency with tools is conceptually weird, in that I’m not sure how I’d list that information on a character sheet to make any sense. I’ve been looking around in the documents, and while I know how I would handle this, but I can’t actually tell if it’s correct by the rules. Can I use a healer’s kit as part of a Wisdom/Medicine check that I am otherwise proficient in, and if so, do I apply my proficiency bonus twice? (The rules for the healer’s kit in the Equipment chapter only make this more confusing – apparently I have to be proficient in the healer’s kit to gain my proficiency bonus from Medicine to Wisdom/Medicine checks?) What is the general process for resolving a trap or locked door?
The explanation is buried in the Equipment chapter, under the description of thieves’ tools. They’re deliberately altering the paradigm of what they call a “skill” (tossing out 20+ years of how every roleplaying game works), but they’ve done about as bad of a job of presenting that information as one could imagine. I think there’s a functional idea under all of this, but they need to take it from the top on explaining it.
Barbarians are first in alphabetical order, so let’s start there. Barbarians derive one skill, out of three, from their class (and honestly I’m shocked that humans don’t choose one extra class skill…), and gain their proficiency bonus on Strength and Constitution saving throws – you know, the components of Fortitude. They also have proficiency in mounts as tools, which is a roundabout way of saying that barbarians are able riders. Raging no longer grants advantage on Strength-based attacks – I love this change, because it means the barbarian’s player still needs to look for ways to gain advantage even if the character has turned off his brain. Oh wait, that’s not true… they just wait until second level, when Reckless Attack is basically always-on if they’re raging. Reckless Attack is now written to punish you for not raging. Bleah.
Instead of resistance to weapon damage, raging grants temporary hit points – I’m fine with this, as it means the barbarian can mitigate all kinds of damage, not just weapon damage. They don’t need armor as gear again; since they only get proficiency in Light and Medium armor, I expect that most barbarians will start play with medium armor (since their Dex bonus will be +2 or less, while their Con bonus will be +3 or less) and pile on enough ability score improvements (after boosting Strength to 20) that they shed the armor. This is okay, I guess, but getting that kind of benefit out of having three very good ability scores means that feats are less appealing for the barbarian and the monk than for most characters.
Barbarians also gain their Extra Attack at fifth level like fighters, but do not get a second Extra Attack later. I think they forgot to consider this change when writing the multi-classing rules, because it makes some odd things happen in the rules around when you gain a second attack: a barbarian 4/fighter 3 technically gains only one attack, even though a 5/2 or 2/5 split would have a second attack. A particularly narrow reading of the rules suggests that a rogue 1/barbarian 7 would not gain a second attack, but this is obnoxious and no rational person should entertain such an interpretation.
Bards are brand-new to the playtest packet, and right off the bat I think I have only one complaint with the class: I think bards (and rogues, while we’re on the topic) should use d8s for hit dice rather than d6s. Now that mages are bumped up to d6s (which has been the case for most of the public playtest’s duration), I feel like rogues and bards should have the tiny bit of extra combat durability that would put them on equal footing with monks, since they’re expected to mix it up in melee just as much.
Huh. I just now realized that they took away ability score adjustments as a first-level class feature. I think this is a bad mistake – that adjustment did a lot to make sure that all races felt like valid choices for all classes, dodging one of the major problems of 4e character creation. Oh well, I guess I’ll fix that in my own game. Were I to run 4e again, I’d absolutely introduce that feature.
Most of the bard’s class abilities are predictable, though some of the mechanics are not great. So my second complaint with the class is that I hate “rolls below 10 are treated as 10” abilities at very early levels, because when DCs are lower, this just means the character automatically passes most rolls of that type. If there’s no question about the outcome, just make it a declarative statement and actually skip the roll. In this case, it means that bards are the masters of other classes’ lore specialties, substantially eclipsing the class most concerned with that lore skill. I’m okay – great, actually – with a vision of the bard that is a true loremaster and uses knowledge rather than weapons or spells to solve problems, but that’s not really consistent with the skald or the sly trickster that are presented as bardic archetypes.
Bardic performances are per-encounter abilities that require 10 minutes of rest to reset. This is fine right up to the part where it’s inconsistent with the game’s statement that a short rest takes an hour, and other classes (such as the cleric and paladin) need an hour of rest to reset their abilities. Now, I happen to think that setting a short rest at an hour is bad, so I’m more likely to bring everyone else’s timer down to 10 minutes. (Ten minutes to reset encounter powers is very pleasing to my CI/Ro3 sensibilities.)
The bard has an Expertise mechanic on top of the Proficiency mechanic. I’m not sure why bards need to be that much better at doing things than other classes – every argument I made about bounded accuracy for fighters above applies here. Moving on, bards get to cast a spell and make a weapon attack in the same round, which is pretty damn powerful – attack twice and go invisible or drop a stinking cloud on opponents or… anyway, this makes bards surprisingly potent as long as their rather limited spells per day hold out, even if they are generally short on direct-damage spells. The bard Path options are both pretty rockin’, and they seem tolerably well balanced to me. On the whole, the bard class gets an A- from me. Would play; needs a little more rules refinement to be perfect.
Clerics got a very slight shift away from their melee aspect, losing their second attack in exchange for a slightly-scaling divine strike. I don’t like this choice, because it makes the cleric a less appealing multi-class option if you’re one of the classes that does gain an extra attack. Also, it puts all of the cleric’s eggs (so to speak) in one basket for the turn – we’re going to see the same thing to a more extreme degree with the rogue. On the other hand, clerics pick up more channeling and more spells per day. Divine Intervention is a super-long-cooldown ability thrown in for players who want a slim chance of something useful happening. The chance is so slim that it’s not even a useful panic-button power; I think it’s fair to say that retooling this to be something on a very long cooldown but at least moderately likely to take effect is the first change I plan to make to this class.
In the clerical domains, clerics lost some means of helping their allies: Flare became self-only and Battle Cry was replaced with a self-only accuracy boost. It suggests that they’re worried people once again won’t want to play clerics because clerics spend too much time helping their allies rather than being the main rockstars themselves. I am the other kind – I gravitate toward classes that let me bolster my allies, and the only reason I never played a leader in 4e was that I play with a lot of people who feel the same way. Oh well, at least there are plenty of spell options. Anyway, the cleric is more or less fine at this point, though I think in the long term the Extra Attack thing will prove to be something of a mistake, at least within the broader dynamic of classes.
Druids are not fully updated to the approach of the rest of the packet – apparent from the difference between their spell progression and everyone else’s. They did at least fix Wild Shape so that the ability score boosts you get from them let you break the hard cap of 20. Endowed with a few relevant feats, the bear druid could probably be a pretty credible defender; the cat druid is a bit less credible as a striker, but maybe it’ll get there as they develop more content. I’m not really sure which feats apply to the cat druid’s claws, but if allowed, Fencing Master would be incredible. The best thing about the druid class, I guess, is that more than other classes in the game right now, a party of four druids might be able to cover the jobs of fighters, rogues, mages, and clerics sufficiently, and that might be a really interesting campaign.
Fighters are largely the same, with only cosmetic changes unless you really liked the Knight, which is removed. They caught enough flak about the theme implied in the Path of the Gladiator that they genericized the name as “Weapon Master,” but I don’t know that the Path makes a lot of sense for an archer. Second Wind now grants temporary hit points rather than healing, which I read as less useful.
The fighter has picked up a new round of customization options at first level; they’re nice and all, but what the class needs is a few more options in later levels. I continue to really like the Weapon Master path, particularly the way the Combat Superiority abilities work – I’d love to see them bulk up the Weaponmaster’s options with some of the things they discarded out of previous packets. The fighter is probably the most interesting class in the game right now, though the monk has the most detailed customization options (and will again be my go-to when I rebuild the outlander). I still give Indomitable a thumbs-down for granting advantage to all saving throws, and I still don’t like the bland, passive-abilities-only Warrior path.
Mages actually get a scaling bonus to their weapon attacks now! Not that there’s really ever a reason for a mage to make a weapon attack, but it’s there. They also have extra ability score/feat slots now, though once they’re ready to start buying feats, there really aren’t many that they would want. Arcane Recovery got weaker at low-to-mid levels, in exchange for a bit more versatility and a touch of late-game power.
The new Enchantment-specialty power “Rapid Enchantment” is strangely pointless. Reducing a spell’s casting time to a swift action is only really useful if you have something worth doing with your primary action. Because of the restrictions on swift actions, the mage can’t cast another spell or use a magic item with her main action, and the mage just isn’t impressing anyone at 16th level with a single melee attack. Basically, the restriction on swift actions needs to not bar the use of cantrips, and then everything is more or less fine.
Monks now make two attacks per round by default, starting at first level, and an additional attack beyond that at eighth level. They can also spend ki to make an additional attack. They don’t spend ki for Stunning Strike anymore – and this is one of the relatively rare cases in which I think they’re right to move a power from per-encounter and player-controlled to being a passive benefit, just because the benefits of spending all of your ki on stunlocking an opponent will be obvious to MMO players everywhere. I appreciate the fact tha a bunch of core monk abilities now have a passive benefit and a ki-expenditure boost. I especially appreciate that one monk Path has a comparatively large number of internal customization options. My lingering complaint with the monk class, which goes all the way back to 3e, is that they’re immune to disease and poison, and I believe (dogmatically, if you like) that immunities should not be player-accessible.
In the long term, I think we’ll see that the main thing holding monks back as a class is that there’s nothing for them to want, gear-wise. An oath of poverty is good for their roleplaying, to be sure, but really cuts out a lot of adventuring goals. Or maybe there will be robes and handwraps that are intended for monks – but having gear that is for exactly one class, and a relatively rarely played one, is not great. The monk’s unarmed damage starts out at d6; in a surprising difference from 3.x, the monk is proficient in quite a few weapons that do more damage than this. The restrictions on Flurry of Blows are such that weapons are a questionable decision at low levels, and seemingly an outright bad decision at high levels. Also I assume the longspear is the same as the pike, since there’s no longspear in the Equipment chapter anymore. I would be really interested to see a monk Path that focused on weapon use, because I can’t think of when I’ve seen a monk that did that in D&D – but I’ve seen The Raid: Redemption, so I’m pretty much an authority on martial arts. They use weapons until they lose them or they run out of ammo.
Paladins are now very slightly more fighter-y, gaining their Extra Attack at 5th rather than 8th (and messing up the multi-class progression as I explained for barbarians) and the same fighting style options as fighters. Immunity to disease is now common to all paladins (even when they introduce other Oaths). Paladins can apply their Charisma bonuses to various things – saving throws that they or their allies make and attack rolls (as a Channel Divinity option). Between Divine Smite, Extra Attack, Improved Divine Smite, and the new paladin attack spells, I’m not sure, but I think paladins might be most capable damage-dealers in the game right now. Folks, I’m going to use a technical design term, so bear with me if this is obscure: those paladin spells are goddamn crazypants. I mean, whoa.
Stands-in-Fire and I talk about the comparison between clerics and paladins pretty often; a certain amount of the time, the cleric looks like a paladin but with weaker attacks and slightly more spells. They may have differentiated them a bit more here: the cleric really is doing more spellcasting and the paladin is more fighty. On the other hand, paladins are so good that probably no one needs clerical healing. A 5th level paladin with a longsword who wants to go nova for a round (and hits twice) is realistically doing 8d8 + 2x Strength bonus damage, with another 2d8 if the target is undead or fiendish. At 11th level, we’re talking about 12d8, or 14d8 against undead or fiends. This assumes you burn spell slots for Divine Smites, which isn’t the best way to use them. By comparison, a fighter spending his Action Surge should deal a little better than half that damage. The only thing keeping them in check is their multiple stat dependency and getting only five ability score/feat slots. As with the druid, I think there’s a valid party roster that is nothing but paladins; with no internal customization, though, each paladin’s niche is a moment-to-moment tactical decision. In summary, their general style is cool, but the nerf bat can’t get here fast enough.
Rangers are in the unfortunate position of presenting a number of options as viable early on, as they have the same Fighting Style options as fighters and paladins. It’s just that archery is the only choice worth considering, because there are ranger spells that improve archery, but none to improve anything else. There is one ability in the Horde Breaker path that requires melee weapons, but everything else either accepts or favors archery. I dunno, I was kind of excited about rangers treating the full boat of fighting style options as valid, rather than just bows and two-weapon fighting. Since I’m just coming off of reading the paladin, the ranger seems pretty weak, as they save the cool abilities for high-level stuff to a much greater degree. Rangers are great at stealth, but they don’t have any unusual way to capitalize on that until 18th level.
Finally, Rogues. Rogues are pretty weird now, in that all rogues get a bonus action every round that can only be used to disengage, hide, or hustle. I guess this makes it kind of a speedster class. They also have a ton of skills; with a little thought given to choosing your Background, it’s easy enough to start with seven trained skills (out of 18) and four trained tools. The weird thing about the design of the rogue is that it spends almost all of its time covering weaknesses rather than establishing strengths. The rogue has one big strength: they deal solid damage on a Sneak Attack, and it’s basically trivial to deliver Sneak Attacks. I’ve never thought about it before now, but it suddenly strikes me as really weird that the rogue makes one huge, devastating attack rather than a series of lesser attacks (because, obviously, I’ve seen The Raid and I’m also an authority on knife-fighting now). It makes more sense for archery, I guess.
The rogue also has a lot of weaknesses: only one saving throw proficiency to start with, d6 HD, and no second attack per round ever (and it wouldn’t do much if they did have it, because Sneak Attack is limited to once per round). There’s some support for a Strength rogue rather than a Dex rogue, in that they get medium armor and longsword proficiency. My point is, you’re going to spend your whole career being fragile, and most of your abilities solve for one particular kind of fragility. The Paths give a little bit of added combat effectiveness, but after the surprise round and first round of combat, the assassin has no additional abilities, while the thief is really only cool if the DM remembers to include environmental features to use against enemies. In total, rogues are probably better off than rangers, but they’re definitely one of the weaker classes in the game and are just not presented with very interesting options. They do at least get a large number of ability score/feat slots.
Multi-Classing is mostly pretty solid – I rather like how they’ve handled the spellcaster problem, overall – but requiring ability score minimums to pick up a particular class as a second class is a choice that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the design. It’s a rule set that is otherwise about complete openness to build characters in whatever format you want, but you have to meet some very 2e-style ability score minimums (some of which are steep – for once it’s easier to be a paladin than a fighter) to multi-class. I assume this is intended as a barrier to class-dipping, but I seriously doubt it accomplishes that. The argument to simulation that the text presents is not at all convincing – look at all of the other stuff you can miraculously learn in a single level gain.
It’s funny, they talked a lot about designing classes so that class-dipping wouldn’t be so desirable – weapon and armor proficiencies wouldn’t be available at first level unless it was also your first character level, that kind of thing. It’s true that you don’t get Path benefits at first level (except for clerics, for whatever reason – but their concept of clerics having Domains instead of Paths is weird. When there are other types of mage than Wizardry, I guess they’ll also make that level of Path choice at first level rather than third, and they choose their Tradition at second. So that’s kinda weird too.
Just to explain a bit: the multi-classing system puts all spellcasters on the same spell progression chart. Any given class contributes zero, one-half, or one level to your spellcasting on that chart. This creates a situation where your highest-level spell slot might be substantially higher than the highest-level spell you know. It’s just that in D&D Next, this is fine – you just beef up your low-level spells with a higher-level slot, and they wind up with stopping power comparable to the spells you’d otherwise be casting. Possibly with slightly smaller areas.
The downside of this is that it means there’s a huge incentive for mages to take one level of cleric along the way – it nets them basic healing functionality, a couple of new skills, proficiency in Charisma saves, proficiency in light and medium armor, and a domain benefit that might mean still more armor. Druid is a slightly less appealing one-level dip, but accomplishes several of the same things. Considering that mages are currently the only casters in the game that don’t have access to cure wounds, I wouldn’t blame them for looking at the multi-classing metagame and finally killing to sacred cow that says wizards can’t heal. (If they don’t do it as a core thing, I might do that in my campaign to see what happens.)
I’m going to skip over several of the documents, since I’ve already said the relevant things about them, but I want to touch very briefly on the Bestiary. The new proficiency system means that monster accuracy and AC look especially paltry, and I hope they address that soonish. What I’m seeing is that combat is mostly too easy, and players only have a problem when my dice are improbably hot. (Even three lowly spinagons can seriously wreck a party when they almost can’t roll below a natural 15. Not really a fair point of comparison.)
The Equipment chapter, as mentioned above, is where a lot of the information about skills and proficiencies gets stored. It’s only here that you learn that you have to have a climber’s kit to apply your proficiency bonus to Strength/Climb checks – otherwise you might think that being proficient in Athletics was good enough, because the text specifically calls that out. So is the DM calling for Climb or Athletics? This is a confusing mess, and on reflection I would be surprised if they didn’t fix this and then have a change reverted out from under them or not quite make the deadline for this packet to go out. Anyway, what they need to do is to store this information in the Skills section or the How to Play section. Dividing skill presentation by whether or not any sort of tool or device is required is nonsense – proficiency in thieves’ tools is a roundabout way of saying “Disable Device,” and it goes against the grain of many moons of roleplaying game writing.
I don’t understand why weapons have both a bonus for proficiency and a penalty (disadvantage on the roll) for non-proficiency. Why isn’t that just… no bonus?
There are a couple of new feats that need to get called out here. As in, for a duel to the death, for their crimes. Athlete and Loremaster, I demand satisfaction. So… we have feats that still grant ability score bonuses, as well as other stuff? Sure, it’s half as many points of bonus, but the big reason to keep the ability score/feat choices rigidly siloed is that there are hard caps on ability scores – so if you want the extra skills granted by Athlete but your Strength is already 20, you’ve made a planning error that the game doesn’t have handling for you to correct.
Other than that, feats are all right; as I think I’ve mentioned before, they’re Specialties that you don’t pick until 4th level, and your class determines how many you get after that. They’re the primary customization over the course of play, and each of them is pretty beefy. I preferred the old Specialties by a long shot, because those presented a clearer conceptual alteration on your base class and concept. My favorites were the ones that acted like class-dipping without actually multi-classing – and also without as blatantly signaling that every player needs to multi-class into a leader class for some healing resources, as we saw in 4e’s multi-class feats. It would be worthwhile to me to drastically rebuild the game’s whole approach to feats and customization – there are a lot of interesting mechanical ideas, but over the course of the whole packet we see them combined in strange and often disappointing ways.
I could drag this massive post out still further by digging into the How to Play document (gridded movement uses the 3.x-style 1.5-squares-in-diagonal, which I now prefer not to use) or the Spells document (since there are a ton of new spells), but instead I’ll thank everyone who made it this far, and offer a few words in closing on the presumptive final playtest packet of the D&D Next public playtest.
D&D Next stands a good chance of being my favorite D&D chassis to date. Combat runs quickly, and I think they have learned a lot of the right lessons from 3.x and 4e – fiddly bonuses and penalties are rare in the extreme. Micromanaging is mostly gone. On the other hand, customization is at a low ebb – but let’s not overstate the case, because while the game at launch may be low on customization, this is still a company that makes its daily bread on selling content, and there’s a ton of room for third-party work (if there’s some kind of OGL, anyway). Over the course of the public playtest, they’ve gotten rid of some of the things I liked most – dice-based skills, different grades of skill expertise, Specialties, and other things. There’s not a really good reason not to reintroduce some of those things in third-party modular content, or in my own campaign.
Finally – I’m operating on 100% armchair design here. I haven’t run a single session with the new packet yet – and because of scheduling issues, my group never updated to the 8-20-13 packet, either. I do put great store in my experience of gaming, but if and when I’m proven wrong about the design decisions WotC made here, I’ll own up to it. I like enough of what they’ve done that getting me to switch to some other game for pseudo-medieval fantasy adventure is a pretty high threshold to cross. I’m planning – though it will take time – to pick up 13th Age, Numenera, and possibly Dungeon World, the darlings of the fantasy gaming circuit; when I do, I’m sure I’ll talk about them here at length. Though maybe not quite as much as Rob Donoghue did.