It’s been a few weeks since the D&D Next playtest hit, and I’ve had some time to examine it.
First and foremost, it’s clear that Wizards wanted a cautious approach—perhaps overly so. The rules aren’t so much a beta (such as the many early Pathfinder builds) but are closer to a quick-start beginner module. The characters are pregens, and most of the information we have about the system is from reverse engineering the characters. My hope is that Wizards will release a real playtest edition of the rules in the future, as Mearls’ introduction letter notes, because if this is all we get, nobody’s going to be pleased; the message will be a transparent “it doesn’t matter what you wanted, because this is what you’re getting,” defeating the point of a public playtest.
Of the much-tauted “modularity,” there’s nothing concrete (or even abstract) so far. My feeling remains that promoting “D&D modularity” is like businesses “promoting synergy;” it’s a catchy buzzword and a desired effect for all parties involved, but the real-world implementations… don’t exist outside the realms of some voodoo economics thing. Thus the “modular design” remains in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” camp—I love the idea, and if they can pull it off, I’ll be duly impressed.
For good or ill, it’s still D&D, still looks like D&D, and probably plays like D&D. (I’m strapped for time, otherwise I might have run it as a one-nighter.) It retains the ubiquitous class/level system, rules unified around one system (d20), it’s high-magic fantasy, and returns to the Vancian system (prepared spellcasting). It also retains some of the least-offensive 4e elements, such as higher character HP, dealing “ability score” damage via abilities (such as on a miss), varied rests and “second winds” to regain HP and facilitate constant adventuring, and sacking fidgety Challenge Ratings for XP-based gauges. And parts of 3e have been included but streamlined, such as combat conditions (thank god), and an overhaul to the Difficulty Class for challenges.
The changes are few, but important. Characters have Backgrounds and Themes which provide neat little abilities and features. The emphasis is on ability checks over skills and saves, which I found a straightforward, logical choice. Instead of tracking various modifiers, and to replicate character merits and flaws, you instead gain Advantage or Disadvantage: rolling 2d20 and taking the better or worse result, respectively. I like that it’s getting away from the modifier bloat, but I can see it turning Advantage into auto-win and Disadvantage into auto-fail if dice rolls are as I expect them. The worst (or least clear) part were the skill checks; instead of multiples of 5-10, they’re now between 1 and 30, which seems too wide a gap. On the bright side, since Next is moving towards smaller numbers, DC 20 is an “extreme” check, making me think stats are more static. It’s clear that this isn’t a complete game yet; the weapon and armor values are poorly edited, it’s unclear if spell effects scale with level, and there’s no rules for miniatures or mapping yet.
The Next rules strike me as a return to D&D’s roots: there’s a strong “back to basics” feel. The game feels like D&D has always felt. The “module” part is the Caves of Chaos, part of B2: Keep on the Borderlands; the monsters go back to the short & simple stat blocks; values (such as for XP) are going down instead of up. Heck, the rules seem much more focused on exploration than tactical combat, taking the game in a very different direction from where more recent D&D editions have gone. If I had to define the game, I’d say it takes 2nd Edition AD&D’s mentality, and backs it up with the three decades of experience D&D has received since then, incorporating a number of 3.x and 4e elements.
Problems? Well, WotC has not produced something that will unify the editions, much less pull back the majority of those already sold on another system. While Next isn’t that bad, it’s not doing anything flashy or decisive to sell the merits of returning to the flock to the many lost tribes. If this was the end-product on sale this GenCon, I think most gamers will stick with the product they sunk the last 4+ years into rather than jump ship to Next.
For the OSR Gamer
While the game has an old-school, return to the roots feel, absence of miniatures rules, etc., it’s still building off modern game design: there are a lot of mechanics that have either been tweaked or incorporated whole-cloth from 3.x and 4e. The 4e rest/second wind/healing surge styles in particular move away from the older Gygaxian simulationism and into more game-y territory. I’m not sure it will attract OSR gamers back to the herd because of its new-design mechanics and style, considering it lacks the same focus of game lines entrenched in OSR circles: Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Labyrinth Lord, Dungeon Crawl Classics, et al. But it does have more of an OSR feel than 3e or 4th. And attracting OSR gamers with “new” mechanics and design is a Sisyphean task if I ever heard one.
For the Pathfinder/3.5 Gamer
Next feels a lot like 3.x, only slimmed down to cut out the rules-lawyering and gaming the mechanics for fun and profit, with some old-school, brand new, and 4e elements tossed in. Most players play Pathfinder for three reasons: to keep using their 3.x material, because they like Paizo (for its world, for its products, for its active and friendly staff), or because they dislike/distrust Wizards of the Coast (e.g., because Pathfinder wasn’t 4e). The last two aren’t groups who will be easily swayed by Next, while the former can incorporate their 3.x stuff into Pathfinder (or True20, FantasyCraft, 3.5) than it will Next. There’s a few great things in Next asking to be implemented into a Pathfinder campaign, but again, the die-hard Pathfinder fans would require Next to offer a free yacht and cure cancer to draw them back. I’m not sure Next is turning their heads yet: Pathfinder fans have strong brand loyalty thanks to the Edition Wars.
For the 4th Edition Gamer
This is turning out to be the hardest sell. 4th Edition was a bold move to take the game in a new direction; I wasn’t thrilled with the specific choices they made, but I see (and support) moving away from Vancian casting, balancing the classes, marginalizing rules lawyering and gaming the system, etc. In most ways, Next is going back to earlier D&D design as if 4th never existed, prying off a few parts and leaving the biggest design changes behind—that’s like a slap in the face to supporters of the last edition, and has the potential to drive away the brand’s stoutest followers. I don’t think Next is as horribly “regressive” as many 4e fans consider it; instead of continuing on the same path that 3e moved the game down and 4e started to flesh out, it’s taking the game back to the AD&D/3.x branching point, and heading down yet another avenue. Less “regressive” (albeit turning back the clock) and more “different.” But difference for D&D fans is seldom lauded. And brand loyalty, thanks to the Edition Wars, is not something to throw away lightly.
Truth be told, I’ve been burned out on D&D and its kin for a while now, though I have such strong nostalgic ties to the game that I’m loath to abandon it. I like a lot of what Next is doing, and it’s going for a type of D&D I’d love running or playing; its new mechanics and goals feel very D&D, but without the rigidity and tactical combat focus of 4th, the cumbersome nature and bad balance of 3rd (there’s still time for that, though), or the disjointed mechanics and simplistic design of AD&D. The mechanics are moving a bit more abstract, more exploration based, but still very crunchy and capable of having a capable tactical combat engine. It’s moving away from modifier bloat—hell, in numbers bloat in general, trying to keep the numbers as small as possible. With luck that will lead to solid internal balance while making a game both fun and challenging.
I can see snippets of more modern and Indie game design in there, such as the hybridizing of fluff and crunch (through background, theme, Dis/Advantage) and giving the DM more adjudication powers (telling when something has Dis/Advantage), which I can get behind. And the snippets of older game design—simpler stat-blocks, the Caves of Chaos, the AD&D style exploration of the unknown (which happens to include dungeons filled with monsters and loot)—that I can also get behind. The Next beta has effectively blended the various eras of D&D into a neat package. But while I like what I see, I’m waiting to learn more about what we’re not seeing: this is so very far from a real product. It feels more of a proof-of-concept quickstart than a rule set.
But the real question remains: “Is this neat package better than the neat package I’ve already spent my money on?” I’m not sure Next has formed a majority, or even a consensus, among D&D gamers. And the way things have been moving, I’d rather pull out The One Ring or go FATE-based if I was running a D&D campaign… if only because those have less baggage of what each player’s “my D&D” should look like, and to get away from everyone’s preconceptions of how D&D acts, by moving into a system more flexible, open, and rewarding of creativity.