As you surely already know, the D&D Next playtest officially began, and the playtest material is (more or less) available for download from Wizards. And what’s even better, it doesn’t have an NDA attached, so we are free to discuss our thoughts and experiences!

   For my part I plan to present multiple articles about D&D Next as our group is going trough the test. Now we are in the “pre-adventure” state: we already read the rules and I had some sample combat encounters with one of the players to get used to the rules.

   So what is in the playtest package? It contains five sample characters (2 different cleric and 1-1 from the other three basic classes), a “how-to-play” and a DM Guidelines file filled with rules and suggestions, a short bestiary and a sample adventure Caves of Chaos. I must say, it’s a  very complete package for a playtest! For now I put the adventure aside, and speak strictly about the rules and the general feel.

The feel

   First I must note that I’m mainly a D&D 3.x player if we speaking about earlier editions, and while I’m also tried Ad&D and 4E I’m a biased toward 3.x. I also like if a game has some old-school feel, but it’s also fresh (as the new Wayfarers RPG), and I like to have many options to personalize my character.

  So, after saying all of this, for me D&D Next feels like one part old-school, one part 4E and one part new but not in a way I really like. And it’s also feels somewhat rigid to me, but I guess it’s partly because it’s a limited playtest package, and not the full rules.

The rules

   Generally speaking most of the rules have some resemblance to earlier editions (checks, HP/HD, Combat etc.), but there are some big changes. I have to say that in most cases I don’t like the decisions the designers made, but as we are at the beginning steps now anything can change for the final version.

   There is a greater emphasis on abilities on D&D Next than in any earlier edition, which in practice means that ability modifiers almost directly take the place of skills and saves. A character could have some fixed bonuses for several skills based on class/background/theme, but it seems that other than that the scores are fixed.

   Many players I know like the new advantage/disadvantage system, but I’m not one of them. I agree that the old modifiers system could get complicated, but the new system have a new problem: there are no levels of positive or negative circumstances.

   For example: you bribe a guard, that’s give you advantage to convince him. You decide to double the bribe and he has another reason to follow your request? Same check! So it’s a case of oversimplification.

    I also don’t like the healing rules, as it has a 4E feel to me, where healing is easy. Basically an 8 hour rest is equal with full healing and you may regain a lot of hit points during the day too. Some of the abilities/spells are currently seems unbalanced (like the Ray of Frost cantrip with no save), but these could change.

The characters

   It seems that characters now have a bigger emphasis on combat than on anything else, but maybe I’m wrong on this one. It seems that every new level for any class means new combat abilities or spells, but few thing which could be useful outside a fight. Oh, and there is no attack bonus increase in the first 3 levels.

  Also, I guess they kept the modular approach of the 4E D&D, and they maybe even improved upon it. For now it seems a character is defined by his race, class, background and theme, and he receive every ability and skill based on these choices. I guess this makes character generation easier, but also more rigid than spending skill points and choosing feats.

  My biggest concern that it seems that skills won’t improve with level, so a 3rd level rogue has the exact same chance to open a lock (except if he use his advantage to anything, twice per day ability) as a 1st level rogue, but at least he is reliably much better in backstabbing. Meh.

   Based on the sample characters Spellcasting seems improved, as a mix of Vancian magic and at-will spells. It’s rumored that even on high levels the characters have much less access to high level spells than before, but they gain more low level options. What I really like is the new version for clerical magic, as it’s a good mix between spontaneous casting and memorizing.

Final words

   Currently I think that D&D Next seems acceptable, but there is nothing to make it to my choice for a fantasy RPG for a campaign.

After the first read, somehow I feel there is no focus, and there is no particular area which would make it outstanding for a group of players or for a particular playstyle. This could make it ideal for those groups who play different styles on occasion, but don’t want to use multiple rule systems/editions, but if your group has a well defined style/mood etc., then I’m not sure that it will be appealing enough to you.

But of course, anything could change until the final release.

  On this week we will start the Caves of Chaos with my players, so in my next article I will talk about our actual play experience and the bestiary and monster stat blocks.

Zoltán “Cain” Mészáros