I’ve been putting off writing a D&D Next post, partly because I still feel like I haven’t fully digested the materials, partly because my group only got a half-hearted playtest in, and partly because I’ve been interested in pursuing other things, like hexcrawl mechanics and fixing feats. On Friday, though, my post on DCs got mentioned on Friday Knight News, and I figured I should go ahead and address 5E directly. (As an aside, the FKN posts look to be neat aggregate posts, and I think I’ll keep a closer eye on Game Knight Reviews generally, as some neat thoughts are floating around there.)
So, what are my thoughts on 5E? Firstly: this. This a thousand times. I don’t think anyone wants or needs a 5th Edition, and the genesis of one is something of an ill-conceived reaction to the fact that 4E lost a lot of players and Retro-clones and Pathfinder has been eating WotC’s lunch for several years now. The answer is not to give us another franken-system, the answer is to give us what we want, and produce new and updated material for the four systems everyone’s already playing. We don’t all have to buy the same product, and WotC should be more concerned that we’re buying their product than which product we’re buying. I’m no publishing industry insider, but it seems to me that the realities of publishing have changed a lot, and I for one would be likely to buy material for each D&D system if WotC would let me (ask my wife: I’m still buying 4E producats and I don’t even like that system).
Anyways. On to the actual 5E stuff. It gets long.
My overall reaction is probably along the lines of “pleasantly surprised but ultimately unmoved.” As I noted previously, I had no interest in D&D Next until I overheard some 4E enthusiasts complaining about what a throwback the playtest was, and comparing it to a combination of 2E and 3E. As a guy who was repelled by 4E into the arms of Pathfinder and OSR sympathies, this piqued my interest. Having gone through everything, though, I can say there are some neat ideas that I plan to add in to my house rules either directly (Advantage/Disadvantage, I’m looking at you) or indirectly. But as Justin at The Alexandrian noted, D&D Next has to do more than be a good system, it has to offer me a compelling reason to switch systems, some meaningful advantage above the system I’ve chosen (with it’s 10+ years of legacy material to draw on), and I really don’t feel like it’s doing that.
I’m not sure where to start, so I’m just going to go through each of the playtest items and talk about what I liked and what I didn’t. Like I said, we only got a half-hearted playtest in — three hours, a few encounters, no leveling, and few non-combat engagements — so a lot of this is based on theory, math, and personal preference/bias. We’ll start with How To Play, then the DM Guidelines, flip through the Bestiary and Character Sheets, and then maybe a few words on the adventure scenario.
How To Play
There’s a lot to like in the How To Play packet.
Saves are based on Attributes now, so you don’t have a Fort Save or a Will Save, you make Str Saves and Int Saves and Cha Saves. The Saves we’re all familiar with become Con Saves, Dex Saves, and Wis or Cha Saves (more on that below), but it opens up the possibilities of more interesting and evocative interactions.
Advantage/Disadvantage is a cool mechanic, which apparently approximates a +3.325 bonus, but gives a simple mechanism to say “yeah, you’ve got the upper/lower hand here.” That works nicely with improvised actions and engaging with the scenery, and I like that.
They simplified actions in combat — now you can move your full speed in a round regardless of when you make your attack (move, swing, move), standing from prone is just 5ft of movement instead of your whole move action, and lots of miscellaneous things like opening un-stuck doors or swapping weapons are considered non-actions. This really streamlines combat and lets players do what they intend without futzing with a lot of action economy. The new rule for Surprise — a -20 on your Initiative check if you were caught unaware — in fantastically elegant.
The introduction of finesse weapons, which can use Dex in place of Str for to-hit and damage modifiers, is a great idea.
I really like the way they’ve implemented casting (designated) spells as rituals.
I think there’s also a lot to dislike here, though.
Charisma and Wisdom seem to be fighting over a lot of the same turf, especially in terms of Saves. I think this is a legacy issue of glomming “Willpower” in with “Awareness” in the definition of Wisdom, instead of with “Assertiveness” in Charisma, but it’s made clearly problematic with attaching Saves directly to attributes. That is, Charisma Saves against attempts to influence you with magic, except when Wisdom does.
They’ve tossed out the notion of Skills in favor of Attribute Checks. This is mitigated a little bit when we get to the Character sheets, but until then I think this is a problem. Fighters will always be better climbers than Rogues. Sorcerers will always be more persuasive than Clerics. Clerics will always be better at spotting traps than Rogues. Some of those make sense some of the time, but with these rules they’ll always be true all of the time.
I can not state with enough venom how much I hate the rules for healing. Making healer’s kits mechanically meaningful is a good thing, I like that, but trying it to a notion of daily uses bothers me. Why does it make sense that a 3rd Level Fighter can bandage himself more often than a 1st Level Fighter? Worse than that is the Long Rest rules, where overnight you can go from death’s door to right as rain. this destroys any notion of strategic play; as long as you can scrape by with 1hp, you’ll be fine the next day.
That touches on and exacerbates the problem of combat as the first and best solution to any encounter. D&D 4E and the trend with 5E puts excessive focus on combat and goes to pains to make sure everyone can be equally effective in a battle. When everyone has reliable damage output, high hit points, and the excessive healing of a Long Rest, there are few reasons to not engage in combat unless you’re grossly outnumbered or outgunned. I think that’s a problem for a Role Playing Game.
To jump ahead, this is why I’m uncomfortable with/skeptical of the way certain 1st Level Spells have been slid into “minor magic” cantrips, that can be cast at will repeatedly. Shocking Grasp is effectively an Int-Based longsword that a Wizard can use every round, and it gets Advantage if the foe is wearing metal. At some point, we start to lose any distinction between playing a Fighting Man and a Magic User, and I can’t see that as a good thing.
At the same time, the removal of Attacks of Opportunity and Grappling limits a lot of the dynamism of combat. This may be a small point, but I think it’s a point worth making.
As a final point, the armor makes little sense, mathematically, as presented. Light Armor adds your full Dex mod to AC, Medium Armor add half the mod, and Heavy Armor adds no mod; this is an interesting idea and I like it in theory. But the numbers as assigned make no sense. Say you have a +2 modifier; Studded Leather costs 25gp and gives you AC15, Scale costs 50gp and gives you AC15 and Disadvantage on Stealth, and Chainmail costs 100gp and gives you AC15 but also Disadvantage on Stealth and -5 movement. Pay more, get less. I’m pretty sure that Medium and Heavy Armor only make any sense if you have a negative Dex mod, and even then you’re going to be penalized on Stealth and movement.
Actually, I don’t think there’s really anything to mention here, good or bad. There’s some advice that’s generally good for any DM, a discussion of DCs, and a bit about common actions characters might take. Motherhood and apple pie type of stuff. When my DC article was mentioned on the FKN post they mentioned how DND Next was “changing DCs” and to be honest I haven’t looked at what the differences are — the Tiers they list seem familiar, though they list busting down a door as DC15 (in 3.X, it varied between DC13 and DC25 depending on the type and construction of the door).
I really like the fact that the bestiary covers combat tactics, monster habitat and society, and some legends and lore about the creatures. This are the important analog information that helps separate Role Playing Games from tabletop wargames and regular board games. It helps establish that there’s a wider world out there and that creatures have an existence beyond the adventures of our PCs. This is great to see, and something that’s generally been missing or weak in most printed Bestiaries I’ve seen.
There’s not really a lot to say here, but I will note that several of the monsters have powers that strike me as dissociated; dissociated mechanics for monsters are problematic because it causes problem with explaining to players what’s actually going on and how the effects are apparent in the game world and to their characters. The three that particularly strike me are the Gnoll Pack Leader’s Feed On The Weak, the Goblin King’s Cunning Tactics, and the Hobgoblin Warlord’s Lead From The Front. These are interesting mechanics and useful from a wargaming perspective, but there’s no easy explanation in any of these cases as to what the creatures are doing and how the characters can effectively react or counter.
Before I say anything here, I think it needs the caveat that we don’t really have any details at all about how characters are built or what the various options are or how they’re combined. We just have a handful of pre-made characters and whatever we can put together based on the How To Play booklet and the notes on the sheets themselves. The characters we’re given are a Human Cleric (ostensibly the Healer), a Dwarf Cleric (focused on Protection), a Dwarf Fighter, a Halfling Rogue, and an Elven Wizard.
I like that there’s apparent variety to the races: the Dwarves are listed as a Mountain Dwarf and a Hill Dwarf, the Halfling is a “Lightfoot Halfling,” and the Elf is a High Elf. This is a neat way to add some spice and variety to races that tend to be cut from the same mold. The mechanism of Class, Background, and Theme promised the potential of streamlining character generation, but we’re missing too much information to say whether that promise will be fulfilled. I’m having a hard time finding points to put here.
I’d like to take this opportunity to mention bounded accuracy, a term that’s new to me but one that some have said is a big advantage that D&D Next has over essentially every other edition. As I understand, bounded accuracy means that characters don’t get increasing bonuses as their level increases, but neither do DCs or creature ACs increase; previously, characters would get bigger and bigger bonuses as they leveled up, but monsters would get higher ACs at essentially the same rate, so what’s the point? D&D Next allegedly cuts that away so that “getting better at something really means getting better” because target numbers don’t scale with level.
But I think that what we have here is a failure to recognize what’s actually going on. This sense that “getting better doesn’t matter” only comes in to play because as a hobby we’ve become obsessed with “level-appropriate” encounters, and the numbers go up the way they do because of the way we’ve decided adventures and encounters for characters of a given level. Character do get better, but we’ve decided not to give them the opportunity to see that because it would be “too hard” for lower levels or “too easy” for higher levels. That is: we did this to ourselves. We don’t need to change the system, we need to change the way we approach the system and what it allows.
Let me be clear: this is kind of important. One of the strengths of 3rd Edition is the range of power levels and stories that it’s able to model. There are many different games inside D&D 3.X, from gritty fantasy (levels 1-5), to high fantasy (lervels 6-10), to wire-fu style stories (levels 11-15), and into the mythic and god-like (levels 16-20), and probably with gradients and variation in between. It makes sense for things that challenge mythic heroes to be beyond the pale for “regular” heroes, but it needs to be recognized that THAT’S what we’re talking about. A cliff-face isn’t a DC 23 to climb because we expect characters to have a +10 to Climb; it’s a DC 23 because it’s slick and treacherous and surely impossible to climb. But characters won’t recognize that they’re actually getting better unless you (1) let them encounter things beyond their abilities early on, and then (2) let them encounter the same things later when accomplishing the task is possible.
Bounded Accuracy is not some boon we’re getting to fix a flaw that’s been in the game since the 70s; Bounded Accuracy is a cludge that’s altering the game in an attempt to fix a problem with our perception, and the end result is to flatten the system into a less-dynamic, less-fulfilling thing. It is, I think, a net negative.
The first thing that bothers me is the fact that despite being a “Hill Dwarf” and a “Mountain Dwarf,” there’s actually no difference between the two. The mechanics, the bonuses, even the descriptive text is exactly the same. I like the idea of there being variation in the races, but if the only variation is the label you put on your character sheet, I could do without it. I can already tell people my character is from the hills or the mountains; if the game is going to recognize it, I want there to be a reason.
I’m concerned that if Class, Background, and Theme are all swappable that we’ll lose any real sense of “Fighter” or “Cleric” or “Rogue,” at least any sense that really feels like D&D. If I can have a Wizard Slayer or a Rogue Healer and so on, things start to break down — it’s not a bad mechanic, but it doesn’t feel like D&D.
In our play through, a few things came up. The first was that without a list of skills, my players we kind of paralyzed with options; they had so many things there could do, and no good measure of how good they were with any of them, that they could never think of anything to do. The second thing that came up was that the Healer didn’t have much in the way of healing, and odder still he dropped the most foes out of the group (using Radiant Lance to drop the majority of goblins and kobolds they encountered — the fighter needed to get in to range and the rogue was too busy trying to hide).
The characters seem to have very little variation in either hit points (16-20) or AC (11-18, but 3 of the 5 have a 15). And in fact there’s not really a lot of differentiation to recommend one character over another; they all appear to be essentially the same in essentially all situations. The Clerics have higher Diplomacy and the Wizard “knows” things, but everything else feels flat.
The Rogue in particular has a problem in that he’s expected to Hide so he can take advantage of his Lurker Theme, presumably so he can do high damage (the way Rogues have done from the beginning). But if he’s Hiding every other round (since it’s a Standard Action to Hide) and attacking ever other round, if he hits on every attack then he’s going to be dealing an average of 4 or 5 damage a round — the Fighter is going to do an average of 14 damage a round (or 3 damage around if he always misses) and the Healer can Radiant Lance every round for an average of 8 or 9 damage a round. In short, the Rogue is appasrently the least likely to do damage; even the Wizard can count on an automatic 5 damage a round (on average) thanks to Magic Missile, and he doesn’t need to roll to hit.
The Rogue also demonstrates two dissociated mechanics on a Player Character. I already mentioned dissociated mechanics with Monsters, but they’re more problematic (I believe) in player characters because they require the player to explicitly step out of their role to make decisions for their character. These mechanics are Knack and Luck, neither of which can be used more than twice a day but also neither of which is tied to any expendable resource that the character can understand.
And that pretty much covers everything, I guess. There are good things in D&D Next, but there’s also a lot of very problematic things. As it stands, I can take the good things from D&D Next and house rule them in to improve the system I’m already familiar with and comfortable using. And that’s exactly what I plan to do unless something amazing happens to make D&D Next fundamentally superior to my current system. And I just can’t imagine that happening.