(This review is for the original playtest packets from 2012. If you’re looking for reviews of the 2014 release of D&D, I suggest reading Harbinger’s posts on the subject.)

I played in a D&D 5e (or D&D Next if you want to use the marketing speak) playtest over the weekend. It’s a little bit early to do a full on review, but I think the playtest gives enough insight into where the designers are going to speak to some core design principles. My biases are:

  • I played a lot of 2e as a teen, but have never really played any earlier editions. I don’t have much in the way of OSR nostalgia for them.
  • I’ve been playing 3e variations since it came out. It’s got some flaws, notably in time to prep nonstandard NPCs and complications in high level play, but…
  • I didn’t find that 4e solved these problems as well as I would have liked. Further, I found the powers structure to be too limiting to creativity at the table and cumbersome to manage.
  • So I’ve mostly been playing Pathfinder for the past few years when we play D&D.

My major questions about the new edition basically revolve around whether it addresses my problems with the previous two editions without introducing some new dealbreakers.

Core Mechanics

Unsurprisingly, this remains “roll a d20, add modifiers, try to meet or exceed a DC.” The major difference from the last two editions is an increased focus on ability scores. The new paradigm is that most rolls are an ability check, to which you might get a bonus, rather than a skill or save bonus that happens to include an ability. In particular, saving throws are now keyed directly to ability scores rather than the Fort/Ref/Wis construction of the last two editions. To mitigate a fireball, you just make a Dex save.

An initial worry with this is that the mental abilities are not very well differentiated as to when you should use them for rolls, particularly for saves and perception-style checks. They’ll eventually need to build in some pretty strong precedents about which effects target Int vs. Wis. vs. Cha to make this system workable.

Another potential issue is that it’s going to again be useful to min-max your core abilities: you can suffer a couple of points off of abilities that you’re rarely going to use for skills and saves to get a higher bonus on the stat you’re going to be using all the time. But it looks like there’s a hard cap of 20, at least, so you’ll get to your max and then maybe diversify a little.

Ultimately, the six ability scores are sacred cows to D&D vs. an industry that’s increasingly moving away from attributes. Since they couldn’t get rid of them, it makes sense to make them carry as much weight as possible and eliminate contingent systems that added complexity.

Scaling or the Lack Thereof

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the playtest materials is the obvious move away from extreme level-based scaling. In general, it looks like classes get one die (with no bonus) worth of extra HP each level and new special abilities, but few or no scaling bonuses to attack or skills. Effectively, if a DC 20 is hard to hit at 1st level, it will probably remain hard to hit for quite a while (possibly for your whole career). A higher level character has more HP and tricks, but may not have the overwhelming advantage enjoyed in previous editions (where creatures a few levels lower than you weren’t really even speedbumps).

I’m tentatively very enthusiastic about this change. One of my core problems with D&D, which I’ve mentioned before, is how hard the rampant scaling makes it to design a consistent world. A compressed system where higher level characters get new tricks but don’t become demi-gods relative to the start of their career makes it way easier to create an internally consistent world.

Conversely, I worry that I’m one of the few players that’s bothered by world building issues (particularly with all the players trained on MMOs and other video games where extreme scaling is a given). I expect this to take heavy fire later in the playtest if players at high level don’t feel sufficiently, increasingly awesome over time. Hopefully the designers will be able to give out enough benefits on level that provide options and feel cool without having to geometrically scale the math.

Modularity

One thing bandied about in the early discussions of the engine is the concept that it’s built to be modular. The intention seems to be to provide a pretty simple core game engine and then offer a ton of modules to change the feel of different elements (e.g., “by default, HP represent a fairly short-term mechanic that allows you to relatively quickly recover to full between sessions, but here are some ways to make damage last longer or heal even faster…”). Effectively, it’s enshrinement of house ruling with a clear instruction book.

I was fairly dubious about this, as D&D, while the most house ruled system ever, has long had so many contingent systems and assumptions that you need to be pretty experienced at modding the game before you stop making minor house rules with overwhelming impact (e.g., removing magic item exp costs in a high-downtime game drastically powers up the crafting PCs). The claim that D&D 5e would be everything to everyone obviously made me skeptical.

However, on seeing the playtest materials, I’m not completely sold but I at least begin to think it’s possible. The core systems are, indeed, pretty simple and don’t seem to be overly bound to one another. And, in general, there seems to be a solid move away from core math assumptions where X players should have Y encounters per level that last Z rounds. You want to fight an ogre at first level? Its attack and defense is still on the same scale as yours, even though it has way more HP and dangerous abilities, so good luck. You want to fight a bunch of kobolds at fifth level? They aren’t individually much of a threat, but each of them can still reliably hit you, and you might still miss them on occasion, so it’ll be pretty easy but not a complete given.

So I’m really hoping they’re able to keep everything distinct and easy to mod. It certainly seems like a goal within reach at this stage.

Part 2

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