D&D Next Playtest Ends: Final Thoughts

DnD-NextFavicon-jpg About ten days ago, the final D&D Next playtest packet was announced and released.

What a wonderful, unique opportunity it’s been to playtest and provide feedback to the designers of D&D’s upcoming 40th anniversary edition.  It’s been up and down for everyone, as playtesting is even more chaotic than I anticipated, but ultimately, we all had our fun as we test drove different rules and evolutions of the rules as the playtest went on.

Mixed Reviews

My playgroup had mixed reviews of D&D Next.  My group’s vets, DMs, and new players all had good and bad experiences.

Starting with the vets, our resident power gamer didn’t feel like there was ever enough… well, power.  Or said a different way, not enough options, choices, and quantity of those things as you level.  He’s a fan of 3.5e though, so that’s no surprise.  In fact, he’s been hoping I run some Pathfinder, which is essentially 3.5 with some clean up and polish.

When my brother got a chance to play PCs, he wasn’t as at odds with the power level or complexity, as he’s not as a big a power gamer – more a tactical, efficient play style.  But he definitely enjoyed Next more than 4e, which he really grew to dislike thanks to its very rulesy, and more than that, simply slow overall play.  Even some tacticians can be overwhelmed with the boredom of molasses-like tactical play, apparently.

When I got a chance to play as a PC, I found creating a character fairly quick considering the complexity – even high level characters didn’t take too long.  (Though no matter the playtest packet, character creation speed of Dragon Age wins most often, especially at lower levels.)  In fact, I preferred earlier playtest packets for character creation and rules complexity.

Meaning, from a character creation and play perspective, the playtest packets’ complexity had evolved significantly.  By the end of playtest, I felt we were definitely closer to 4e than we’d ever been with Next, whereas in the earliest and middle packets, it felt more like a 2e/3e hybrid – surprise, my favorite editions!  (Well, except for Basic Red Box+, which was The Beginning for me, of course!)

We had a few brand-new-to-RPGs-and-D&D gamers in there too, which was great.  I thanked and thank everyone again for their patience during all our playtest games, and none more especially than our new players who were excellent considering all the newness and all the changing rules from month to month.  No question the later packets were harder for our new guys and gals though to switch gears into and drive smoothly during the game.

My greatest joys out of all the D&D Next Playtesting our group did together – with our Seascape high-seas naval mini-campaign being the highlight – was feeling like we got back to D&D’s balanced storytelling and game roots, truly helping to evolve D&D into something better, and introducing and teaching how awesome our hobby is, and how awesome D&D is, to  new players all at the same time.

My biggest disappointment is that some packet rules changes were too jarring, confusing or needlessly complex.  But then again – it was playtesting!  Some of that is to be expected.

A Few Rules Gone Wrong

The truth is, by the last playtest packet, I regret my group’s interest (mine unfortunately included) had suddenly dropped off.  Some low-lights that contributed to us reaching this point include:

  • Crits Nerfed into Oblivion.  Crits became more and more boring with each packet, until by the penultimate one, the ridiculous crit rules punched us all the in face and truly made crits anything but exciting or powerful.  Thankfully, the last packet on 9/20 reverted crits to something impactful and  powerful again with minimal dice rolling and calculation.
  • Needlessly Complex Fighters.  Sorry, for the classic, straightforward likes-to-fight-guy, you couldn’t really create or level him that way.  Dare I say, there were too many choices to make even if you were purposely going for the simplest of great weapon fighters, for example.  We had someone play a fighter, and we both were a bit overwhelmed by the changes this once-simple class went through as the playtest went along.  Still, the final 9/20 version seems to dial back – or at least better organize – the complexity just enough while clearly defining simple themes and roles for your good ol’ simple fighter.  (And on an unrelated note, while the “wizard” became a “mage” at one point, the “fighter” for a class name has somehow stuck – it just sounds silly, especially for newcomers.  “Warrior” seems like the better, natural choice, even if Dragon Age already uses just that.)
  • Skills & Tasks Became Blurred & Rigid.  This became more and more confusing, strange, overly defined and simply annoying with each playtest packet.  Needless to say, our group liked the more organic treatment of skills, tasks, and checks in the earlier packets – closer to how Dragon Age does abilities and related checks or tests.  Ironically, by the very last 9/20 packet, ability scores and their related skills and tasks had a remarkable resemblance to Dragon Age’s more natural and elegant presentation.
  • Martial Damage Dice Removed/Reworked.  I really missed the excitement, options and ultimate elegance of the martial damage dice pool from the earlier packets.  It compares somewhat to Stunt points from Dragon Age, where you could use a certain amount of points, or in this case, dice, to “do other cool stuff” instead of just additional damage.  But it was cool to always have the choice to just deal a bunch more damage instead of some damage plus cool stuff.  I really felt like it was a well-balanced mechanic from every perspective, so I don’t like that they changed how they worked, recasting them quite differently by class.  Suddenly, everyone’s “martial damage dice” was called something else, used different types of dice (instead of everyone using a pool of extra d6’s), and did remarkably different things.  I liked how if I knew how the original fighter’s martial damage dice pool worked, that it would be very much like the monk’s.  (And the monk was pure awesome!  Loved playing it!)

Here’s to D&D’s Future!

And that’s that – my D&D Next or 5e Playtest thoughts, like the playtest itself, have come to an end.  It was still a good time overall, and I’m excited to see what the final, modular, polished game looks like.  There’s still a ways to go to truly making it the perfect balance of every edition and balance of storytelling and game D&D should be.  But, thanks to our help, and your help, we’re on our way to a whole new – and hopefully better than ever – generation of Dungeons & Dragons in 2014.

So how about you: what were your favorite or least favorite parts of the D&D Next Playtest?  What one rule or change was awesome, and which one did you feel was downright terrible?


14 Responses to “D&D Next Playtest Ends: Final Thoughts”

  1. Kram Nymphius says:

    Just googled D&D Next review and yours came up first. Great quick and concise review sir! It didn’t go on and on about too much. Gave me a good feel for what to expect as well. Have you ever played/reviewed Numenera? It’s one I’ve been reading (never played) for a number of months now…it seems like it will be a great play experience! Either way, I am curious as to if in the end Next is going to be worth the $? I’ve ONLY played 4e. Never 3.5 or Pathfinder, but that new(er) beginners Pathfinder box looks pretty tempting every time I’m perusing my local gamestore shelves. What would you recommend? Waiting for Next or just start reading Pathfinder for the first time? THoughts would be appreciated. THanks again!!!!

    A lotus for you my good sir,
    Kram Nymphius

    • Kilsek says:

      Hi Kram and welcome to Leonine Roar!

      Yes, I’ve heard of Numenera by Monte Cook – and if it’s by him, the lead designer of D&D 3rd edition, then chances are very good Numenera is excellent.

      I’d like to try it some time, and I also have the Pathfinder starter box you mentioned – it’s excellent. Best quality for a starting RPG game I’ve ever seen. And in case you don’t know, Pathfinder is essentially D&D 3e/3.5e cleaned up and continued. I haven’t played Pathfinder yet, but I did play D&D 3e for 10+ years and it’s a great edition of the game.

      Which brings me to D&D Next – like you asked, I’m personally all-in on D&D Next – or simply “Dungeons & Dragons” 2014. The playtest packets have this classic D&D storytelling feel to them plus a best-of style where they’ve plucked the best rules and flavor from each D&D edition. My favorite feature? Its rules complexity will be scalable. Awesome!

      Enjoy your RPGs whichever you choose – I know which one I’m going all in on!

      • Tor says:

        I helped to kickstart Numenera, because it was Monte Cook. I couldn’t have been more disappointed in it.

        Here is my mini review, pros and cons.

        pro 1. setting is literally ANYTHING. want old alien crash site, turned city whose elders pay tribute to what they believe are gods roaming the tunnels beneath the streets. done. want an abandoned irrigation project out in the flat deserts with giant black city blocks of obsidian floating 4 inches above the sand. done. is it alien tech, magic, psionics… it doesn’t matter.

        pro 2. the characters run a wide gamut. from “carries a quiver” to “turns into a wolf and tears peoples faces off” to “controls magnetism” to “entertains”. (could be a con too, if the players don’t try to min/max the system. the entertainer for example is just stupid)

        pro 3. eye balled rules. read it once/twice… you’ll know how to play. it’s like an indie game. zero depth to the rules. easy to play. (there’s a con here too depending on your play style)

        Cons. 1. game system is completely dysfunctional. it is so broken as to beggar belief.

        2. working out what one needs to roll, is unnecessarily complicated. too many modifiers, that need to be plussed, minused and then multiplied by 3 to figure out what one needs to roll on a d20.

        3. no attempt at balance. between “1st level” heroes, between any of the enemies. it’s very hard to judge what is going to be an exciting encounter, without having to gimp your enemies suddenly because they’re too powerful… or add reinforcements from out of the woodwork, because the heroes are slicing through what was supposed to be your epic encounter. very little to no advice as to how run these encounters.

        4. hitpoints don’t exist. they are part of a core stat Might (which then spills over into the other two pools Speed and Intellect). You spend Might to do physical things like Attack, defend, do extra damage, pull off a special attack, lower a difficulty of a might based roll. So, there’s this conundrum of attacking… do i attack and burn points out of might to help me hit… or do i attack and not spend might, thereby missing, to be attacked and lose might. TO further complicate the maths, you might have an edge in that pool which saves on the point spend.
        you can quite literally pass out from swinging your sword too hard, or worse, you can drop your might in your attempt to make that roll, and then a squirrel can come along and tail slap you and you go down like a felled tree.

        5. arbitrary rules to try balance other things. cyphers are one shot magic items, but the player is limited to a certain amount due to their resonance fields overlapping… which makes them explode. this is a piss poor attempt of regulating how many one shot items you have… but the GM is encouraged to give a lot of them out, so they are used. Some classes can carry MORE of these than others, with no explanation.
        no thought is given to how so many of these devices are found in the wilds, unexploded… or if they are congregated in a town. Each are effectively a small bomb when placed with other similar objects… it doesn’t seem anyone would actually consider these things useful or safe.
        what happens when the group huddles together in an elevator… do they all explode then due to the overlapping resonance fields? no… but you can only have X number on your body. lazy arbitrary limits in a game where nothing else seemingly matters enough to be balanced. bizarre.

        6. the GM throws no dice. ever. players make all rolls. even NPC on NPC violence… or worse… cypher vs environment. which got real confusing… for target numbers, skills levels, etc. it’s like trying to compare two target numbers against each other. A DC 15 vs a DC 12, what happens? the example that broke the play test session was a cypher that produces a bubble shield of energy for one person. a cave in happened around this person. the bubble shield is a lvl 3 cypher (which means it takes a 9 on an intellect roll to activate it on)… it has nothing to do with the strength of the bubble. Some cyphers don’t even require the activation roll, they just work. the cave in is a level 4 threat. you’d need a 12 to dodge (speed roll) to safety. so what happens when the bubble springs into existence. is it strong enough to keep the cave in out, are dice rolled, who rolls against what… the cave in vs the magical one-shot cypher, or the cypher vs the cave in? All so much DM hand waving.

        and last thing… combat. it takes an age, because on every single dice roll (whether attacking or dodging) the player has the option to spend points form his pool to lower the difficulty. there is a cost / benefit weigh up every dice roll. “Hmm, should I spend 3 might, less 1 because I have an edge to lower the difficulty from 4 to 3, which is actually a 12 to a 9, and then spend another 2 might on my special lunge attack to do 1 extra point of damage (no damage rolls, all damage is fixed, which means that there are out of the box armour combinations that prevent whole classes of critters from ever damaging player characters as they’ll never do more damage than their listed amount)… or should I spend 3 might (less 1 for my edge, and another 2 might to drop the difficulty down by 2, from 4 to 2 so that I only need a 6 to hit and hope my damage is enough to get through his armour.” At which point other players chime in on their recommendations… *yawn*… a minute later a roll is made. Now the enemy attacks, and the player who makes all the rolls, has yet more decisions to make. “Should I spend Speed points to lower the difficulty… blah blah blah.”

        Really… truly… don’t bother.

  2. Classtoise says:

    All honesty, this article (and it’s obsession with the Dragon Age system) seems to sum up exactly what WotC wanted; People who hated 4e get to pretend it never happened and keep talking about how great Vancian Magic and Monte “Trap Feat” Cook was.

    And Pathfinder is hardly “cleaned and polished”. It’s 3.75 – Now with more Caster Supremacy.

  3. Undead44 says:

    I’d highly recommend Pathfinder for any fan of 3.0/3.5e. It has the most D&D feel to it of any of the current systems. Both 4e and Next don’t actually feel or play like D&D anymore. Pathfinder has also moved into the modern age of using the web and electronic tools efficiently (like using Roll20.net and HeroLab for virtual play). WotC just takes way to long to develop products and has yet to put out a decent electronic tool set (compendium was solid but had a monthly fee, where Pathfinder’s web databases are completely free).

    4e was just a bad joke. While their intent was good (simplify, balance, scale), the end result was just horrible (class homogenization, limiting options, neutering role playing, poor balance). They just don’t seem like a very competent development team and the NEXT playtest phases just re-emphasized that.

    Make the leap to Pathfinder. You won’t regret it.

  4. Alokin says:

    Personally I’m still looking for that modern, new ruleset that obliterates the old paradigm.

    Why are most rule-sets still based on mechanical ideas? Like: Skill, feat and the separation of abilities for certain tasks and occurences.

    And the few modern games like Fate and Numenera have streamlined rules in order to emphasize roleplay, but first of all, many rules then don’t make sense anyway and the cool sensation of engineered depth within the rule-world is gone.

    Games should be about emphasizing drama, intentions and flow of story, even inside the action, adventure and complex issues.

    For instance: In combat, why is an “action” separated into choreogprahic “bits”? Real and dramatic battle often starts with banter, threats, many days of lingering agonizing wait or complete surprise – and when it happens, it is often quickly over.

    A dramatic fight is built on the intention of what you want to accomplish and the different hurdles that you need to overcome – reducing those hurdles to choreographic sections is bad. Instead, bse the action on what you directly want to accomplish – and let the dice affect the timing and choreography as a result.

    And what about skills and feats? I would prefer that the character sheet indicated training – as something one is undergoing or have started – and which is affected by the abilities concerning training and performing what you have been trained to do.

    The same thing goes for what you are not trained to do. People are not software – you have tendencies.

    It could mean nothing and it could mean a great deal in the future, depending on how those tendencies develop over a characters game-life.

    • Diableirst says:

      Though I can easily agree that you make some good points Alokin, you are assuming too heavily that everyone enjoys the same play stile and/or systems. You can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Personally, I enjoy a bit of both tactical die rolling and in deapth social “combat”, which is why I so enjoy D&D 3.0-Pathfinder so much. When 3.0 came out I thought it was the greatest RPG ever made because I could finally make a slue of characters that were un-creatable with the previous editions. With the obvious “blending” and half erased chalkboard feel of 4e, WoTC completely lost me as a customer and am happy still buying 3.5 and Pathfinder material. I purchase a good amount of them paying more than cover price, which should tell you how popular it actually still is. And if you ARE looking for strictly Role Playing and don’t like heavy systems, I would highly recommend “AMBER”. It is a totally diceless system and has a heavy cult following to this day.

  5. Baziel says:

    Thank you for the nice review. I was first introduced to D&D in my sophomore year of high school which was in 1982. Yes, I’m an old fart compared to most of you. lol. I started with the Redbox and quickly moved my way up through AD&D then second edition. I was hooked by then and invested heavily in the 2nd Edition products over the years, so when 3.0 and 3.5 came out I just couldn’t see myself investing in them. As a DM who had spent many years tweaking the game with the occasional house rule and learning the rules well enough to be second nature to me, I just didn’t want to put the time, money, and effort into a new system that to be honest felt like a minmaxers paradise. So as most players moved on to the new editions, I didn’t play as much and found myself moving to the Dark Side which is Games Workshop. lol. You see, I’ve always looked at game mechanics as just a means to create and awesome story with the help of my players. Did the rules have to be perfect for us? Nope, as long as it made the game relatively balanced, we were ok with it. It wasn’t about having a character that just whooped every monsters butt, it was about a cool never ending story. My player’s characters rarely died. Unless they did something just overwhelmingly stupid, I would give them lifelines to pull their butts out of trouble, or make them play with a severe disadvantage. Their are always consequences to every action in the game and I quickly learned that most problems that arose could be remedied through story manipulation. This in turn made the game even more exciting to myself and my players.

    Having said all of that, I’ve had a chance to peruse the Basic Rules for 5th Edition and frankly, I couldn’t be happier. At its core, the game is once again focused on its roots, role playing and storytelling. Sure everyone loves some good hack and slash in a game, myself included, but it’s the story that keeps players coming back and wanting more. I love the fact that they really emphasized Background stories in this edition. That just makes for a better game all around. Let’s face facts, no game system will be perfect for everyone, and there will be plenty who will think its crap. For me, as long as the core of the game mechanics is relatively sound, I can modify/tweak it to best suit mine and my players needs for a great gaming experience, and I think this new edition gives me exactly the reason I’ve been looking for to buy back into the game. I look forward to seeing more!

    • Kilsek says:

      Hey Baziel, welcome to Leonine Roar and thanks for your comment!

      I love this: it’s “about a cool never-ending story” – simply awesome!

      I love plenty of cool with my stories and that’s the one of the biggest draws for me in D&D and RPGs.

      And, yeah doesn’t D&D 5e look great? Definitely back to its story roots like you said – still with plenty of game. The rules are there, but finally retreating a bit more to the background so they don’t get in the way of great storytelling, roleplaying and action. Great time to get into – or back into – D&D!

  6. Baziel says:

    Thanks for the nice welcome and reply Kilsek! The one thing I’m really hoping they delve deep into with this new edition can be summed up in one word for me… “Ravenloft!” I am a long time fan of that setting and would love to see it rekindled to a blazing roar of Gothic Horror goodness!! Keeping my fingers crossed on that one!

    • Kilsek says:

      Ravenloft is a classic! Enjoyed some side-trek adventures there throughout the editions, always loved a splash of horror and dark fantasy in my D&D. In fact, playing Dragon Age as a player in my brother’s campaigns reminds me of the Ravenloft setting – if you love Ravenloft, you might also enjoy Dragon Age.

  7. Baziel says:

    I’m familiar with the Dragon Age video games and love the world it’s set in. Very creative and intriguing to the player. I’ve only just realized that there is a RPG system for it. Would I like to run/play it? I don’t know if I’d want to do that. I’m on the fence about that one. Maybe… Besides Ravenloft, the Campaign setting I enjoyed the most and in fact spent most of my time running games of D&D in was Forgotten Realms. The best D&D Campaign setting ever in my book! I guess one of the biggest reasons for this is that TSR put out SO MUCH support for the setting I was like a kid in a Candy shop every other month saying “Ooo that’s cool! Oh wait, that’s really cool too!!” lol. I’m a little on the fence about the whole Tiamat Campaign. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t get much more of an Iconic D&D Character than Tiamat, but I think maybe they let the cat out of the bag too early with that one. As a writer, I would have eluded to the fact that something dark and draconic was looming in the shadows, but as to what, I would have left the audience guessing until a really cool moment so as to have everyone Geeking out about it! lol. Timing is everything when it comes to storytelling. That’s just what I think. I once had a game set in DragonLance where the ultimate and overall plot of the whole Campaign dealt with Raistlin and his obsession with attempting to create life which in turn culminated into his goal of destroying Takhisis, and eventually taking her place in the stars. In the place where the five headed dragon constellation should be, suddenly there would be a constellation in the shape of an hourglass. The Campaign ended not with the hourglass in place of the five headed dragon, but along side it. Raistlin had achieved Godhood in end, but was unable to destroy Takhisis. This campaign took the better part of a year to complete, and only in the last three or four gaming sessions did the players find out the real plot behind everything that was happening. Yep, they Geeked out, and I had a ball running it!! 🙂

    • Kilsek says:

      Now THAT is a big reveal, very nicely done Baziel!!

      And yes, we love the Forgotten Realms too – we’re lucky the Realms is now D&D’s flagship setting. Kind of felt like it also was back in 2e – like you said, there was so much great stuff released for FR.

  8. Baziel says:

    The thing I loved most about Forgotten Realms, was that the setting was so huge that a DM could run just about every type of adventure you could think of just in that one setting alone. A DM could run a year long campaign just in Waterdreep if he or she wanted too. In fact, most of my FR adventures were set in the Dalelands or at least began there. I wonder if Ed Greenwood kept the IP rights to FR. If so, I think he is in for a nice pay day with the new edition.

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