D&D Next Public Playtest: First Thoughts

So the D&D Next (5e, Type V whatever you want to call it) play test is out. Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. I made it a point to avoid any commentary on the playtest before I had a chance to download and review the material myself, and I have to say I’m glad I did. There’s a interesting split in the commentary, where almost all the fans of 3.5 or earlier D&D range between excited to cautiously optimistic to indifferent, and the 4e fans who all appear to view this as the coming apocalypse. Although it’s somewhat telling I think that the few comments I’ve been able to find from non experienced D&D players are generally favorable.

I thought I’d get some of my initial thoughts out of the way here. The terms of the beta forbid me from excerpting any of the material, so I highly recommend that if you haven’t, you sign up and download the materials for yourself. First things first, the supplied materials are very basic. If WotC were ever to release a “rules lite” version of D&D this would probably be most of it. No character creation rules yet, nor theme, background, class or race rules. A few low level spells, information about ability scores, generating HP and some copy / paste equipment lists. The rules as presented are clearly inspired by 2e and 3.5e, with mechanics that should be familiar to any D&D player, but most familiar to players of those editions. Reading though the character sheets provide some hints of the modules to come which will presumably bring in more of the 4e feel if that’s what you want. Certainly, if you ignore the inflated HP and attacks, I can see how you could use this core set of rules to emulate just about everything from 0e to 3.5e, and that appears to be something WotC wants you to see, since the included sample adventure is the Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I have not had a chance to read though the included one to see if it’s a verbatim copy , or a modified one.

On to the highlights:

Advantages / Disadvantages

This is an interesting and new mechanic to D&D. In addition to basic +/- 2 modifiers to rolls, certain conditions will grant an attacker an advantage or disadvantage. The basic idea is that depending on which you have, when you roll your attack, or check, or save, you roll two d20 and take the highest or lowest of the two rolls depending on whether you have an advantage or disadvantage respectively. For example, instead of opportunity attacks against ranged characters who attack while in melee range, the character now takes a disadvantage. Ranged characters also take a disadvantage for firing at long range. At first read, I like this idea, though I wonder how it will play out in long term play.

Disrupted Spell Casting

If a Wizard (and thus far from the play test documents, only a wizard) takes damage they become “disrupted” on their next turn. Effectively this means that the wizard must make a DC 10 Constitution save if they want to cast a spell, or the spell will fizzle, but not be lost. A nod of sorts to the 0e days when being hit while spell casting lost your spell.

Ability Scores as Saving Throws

In this playtest, ability scores (or more accurately their modifiers) dictate your saving throws, so rather than Save vs Poison or Staves or Wands a la 0e/1e, or Fort/Ref/Will saves a la 3.5e or defenses a la 4e, the playtest has essentially 6 saves, one for each stat. Save DCs are determined by the DM as in 3.5, and are d20 + ability mod +/- other factors. I personally like having multiple saving throws in the game. While I appreciate the simplicity of a single throw a la Swords and Wizardry, it leads to writing down tons of extra exceptions, that are often more easily handled with multiple throws. And since I’m sort of in the school of “Rolling Dice is Fun!” I prefer the saving throws to 4e’s defenses and 50/50 saving throw.

Move + Action = Turn

I have no preference one way or the other between move/action systems of 2e and before or the Move/Minor/Standard system of 4e, other than to say that having an explicit minor action did add some interesting spell and power effects to 4e. On the other hand, more often than not, I found myself and my fellow players skipping over the minor action, unless there was an explicit need for it as outlined in a power, so the lack of a minor action in the playtest doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The places where it would have been called out in 4e are still called out, they just imply a minor action rather than calling it that.

Standing From Prone is no Longer a Full Movement

In addition to the elimination of “Minor Actions”, the play test documents also make a change that standing from a prone position now only consumes 5 ft of movement rather than your entire movement. This to my mind is a great, if small change. I absolutely hate that getting up from prone consumes one’s entire movement in 4e. I fully buy into the idea that standing up isn’t “free” , and should cost you some of your movement. I can even buy that it should cost you more than a mere 5 ft of movement, but I have never been able to justify in my head that it would cost your entire movement. In addition, reloading a crossbow no longer consumes your movement if you want to load and fire on the same turn, it now gives you a disadvantage.


The playtest documents include a dying mechanic that is something between the 4e “three strikes” mechanic and 3.5e -10 mechanic. In the playtest rules, starting on the round after you reach 0 hp, you begin making death saving throws. Each saving throw you fail causes you to lose 1d6 additional HP. If you successfully make 3 (not necessarily consecutive) saving throws, you stabilize. Otherwise, once you reach -(CON + Level) hp you’re D-E-D dead.

EP Returns

For those of you that started with 4e, ep was a coin denomination worth 5sp or 1/2 gp. Other than it being a nice throw back to the old editions, I have no preference one way or the other about it, but I do find the wailing and gnashing of teeth over its existence to be amusing.

Armor Needs More Information

Given the relatively easy to get attribute modifiers (anything over 11 gives you at least +1), I can’t see a reason why anyone would want to choose heavy armor. In addition to costing more, the heavy armor classes reduce your speed, weigh more and at least as far as the current rules are concerned give you no benefits at all, over a a light armor with your dex mods. Of course this runs counter to my previous post on it being perfectly OK to run a character that doesn’t take the optimal path, but still, it would be nice to see some reason to choose heavy armor other than flavor, if only perhaps to appease the munchkins.

Welcome Back Flavor

Oh, how much I’ve enjoyed reading some of the spell and monster descriptions in this material. Flavor is back with a passion, including random tidbits like what sort of weapons or treasure a given monster prefers, and spells. I know this had caused some great consternation among some 4e fans who see this as extraneous and are confused as to what purpose it serves, especially since it’s not included for every monster, but honestly, I like it. One of the great things about reading early D&D material is how everything is given a bit of personality and monsters and spells are more than just their stat blocks. I do however agree with the 4e fans that spells and monsters need a standardized and simple stat block for quick in game reference which most of the monsters do, but most of the spells do not. They may not need to be included right next to the fluff (though all the information should be in the fluff part, after all fluff is rules), but perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing to include condensed stat block appendices.

All that said, I don’t like the re-introduction of PC attributes for all monsters. I get that with saves being attribute based it’s somewhat necessary, but I’ve always been OK with NPCs/Monsters being created and acting differently than PCs, and would rather have a simpler or even single save system for monsters and basic NPCs. Additionally, I would love to see a section on building or modifying your own mosters a la 4e  or Swords and Wizardry.

4e Mechanics Without 4e Vocabulary

If there is one thing that has possibly raised the hackles of 4e fans more than anything, it is the use of 4e and 4e like mechanics while dropping 4e vocabulary. Distances are once again in feet rather than squares, no more explicit “minor actions” and the new “mundane healing” which I will get to next, as opposed to “healing surges”. Well, I hate to tell 4e fans this, but 4e’s vocabulary is a large reason why people say it feels too much like a video game, and why it doesn’t feel like D&D, and whether you believe that to be a problem or not, WotC (and a certain number of ex players) certainly seem to think it is. The RPG hobby as a whole, and D&D in particular has developed a vocabulary of its own. When you say PC, NPC, Monster, Class, Race, Saving Throw IC, OOC, XP, HP, MP, AC, STR, DEX, INT, WIS, CHA, and CON, even non D&D players generally know what you’re talking about, and most successful games that attempt to emulate or be the next D&D use that common language, and where they deviate from the common language, they usually do so either for copyright purposes, or for a compelling new mechanic. After TSR and before he died, Gary Gygax went on to produce another RPG line called “Lejendary Adventures”, which though I haven’t read, I understand was actually quite good, and was a lot of what Gygax would have done with D&D had he continued with it. But for copyright, and I think for distance reasons, LA deviated significantly from the D&D vocabulary. While there are a number of reasons LA failed, many gamers found the odd vocabulary (sometimes for no reason than to be different) off putting. 4e is something of the same thing. While it is D&D and uses plenty of the D&D language, it has its own vocabulary, significantly different from any edition before it. In theory, the vocabulary shouldn’t matter, as long as the idea is being conveyed, but the language used goes a lot towards the feel of something.

Mundane Healing

5e also introduces mundane healing wich is something of a bastardized version of healing surges from 4e. In 4e, healing surges work as something of a “how long before the party needs to rest” gauge, and as free non-magical healing. In practice this means that your HP in 4e is really a measure of how much of a beating you can take in a single combat, and your healing surges are a measure of how much you can take in a day. Because healing surges in 4e are mostly used outside of battle, and when used outside of battle can be used freely, most DMs apparently use them to measure off individual encounters, and assume that the party will be at at least 3/4 HP for each new encounter. The new 5e “mundane healing” attempts to do something similar. In the playtest, your character has a number of hit dice, apparently equal to their level with a die type related to their class (d4 for wizards, d12 for fighters and so on). With “mundane healing” players outside of battle can use a “healing kit charge” to bandage or patch themselves up, rolling as many of their hit dice as they want to see how much they gain back. And unlike 4e, magical healing doesn’t use your hit dice up.

I like non magical healing, and in fact, allowing 1d3 (but no more than the amount lost in the last battle) of minor healing after a combat is one of my LL house rules. I was never a big fan of 4e’s healing surges, but I’m not so sure I like this mechanic either. Since starting HP is CON + 1HD, mundane healing especially at low levels is basically a daily use to potentially only get back 1 HP. I have a distinct feeling this will be more frustrating than not. I think I would rather either a larger number of HD available at low levels (say starting with 4 or 5) or have a guaranteed return on HD (such as the full die value). If, as they stated leading up to this play test, WotC wanted to keep the cleric from having to play as a heal bot (something I should talk about in another post), then they didn’t accomplish their goal here.

Weird HP Scalling

Speaking of HP, it appears that they’ve tried to combine some version of 4e HP generation with 0e random generation. As I mentioned before, each PC gets starting HP of CON + 1 HD which is akin to how its done in 4e, with the exception that 4e isn’t random at all. But then, unlike 4e where each level generates a predictable increase in HP, you roll another HD and add that, much like old editions. As a result, if you are a fighter with a 15 CON, at 5th level you could either have 25 HP (because minimum additional HP is your CON modifier), or 75 HP, with most fighters probably falling somewhere around 45. Personally, I like random, it makes things interesting, but with how much HP scores (and consequently damage) have inflated over the years (compare to LL where a 5th level fighter with 15 CON will have  between 10 and 45 HP with the average falling in at 25), I think there either needs to be less random, or a higher minimum floor.

Random is Back

Speaking of random, dice rolls are back with a vengeance. Once again, this appears to vex 4e fans who very much love the complete predictability of just about everything in 4e, but for fans of older editions, where consulting a random chart was common place, you will find plenty of random, from HP generation, to how many of each monster carries what weapon to how much damage you avoid while drunk. Again, vexing to 4e fans, but in my mind, rolling dice is fun.


So on the whole I find myself fairly optimistic about this new version. It feels more like D&D used to, and it looks like it might streamline a lot of the insanity that was choice and option overload in 3e and 4e while reducing the inconsistent design of earlier editions. Whether or not they can pull off something that throws a bone to everyone and is still fun to play with a D&D soul remains to be seen, but with the caveat that this is a very rough core mechanics play test, they seem to be off to an OK start. Actual play test report pending in about 2 weeks when I can sit the group down for a session.

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