|The playtest begins...|
However, I still remained on the mailing list for Wizards of the Coast's upcoming playtest and, when it went live, I figured that I had nothing to lose: just this past Friday, my home group had a sesssion off (as two players were AWOL), so the rest of us threw together a quick session of D&D's newest incarnation, using 3rd level versions of the playtest characters in section K: "The Caves of Evil Chaos" in the provided adventure.
The result of that session? A resounding 'meh'. The current mechanics for D&D Next are a Frankenstein's Monster of grafted together mechanics, combining seemingly random mechanics from prior editions while adding few new or innovative mechanics of its own. Billed with the expressed intent to unify gamers, these current rules will do little to placate any of the fractious factions in gaming.
Truth be told, D&D Next most reminded me of Heroes Unlimited from Palladium Games. Kevin Siembieda's system was a loosely cobbled-together amalgamation of rules from early editions of D&D, GURPS, and a host of other homebrew systems. While it was fully playable as a system, its flaws were numerous and its mechanics were incredibly fiddly. While using d20s for its combat mechanics--which were culled right from AD&D, minus the THAC0--Heroes Unlimited used a percentile-based mechanics pulled straight out of Call of Cthulhu's first edition. This schizophrenic feel carries over directly into D&D Next to great detriment.
We'll start with what hasn't changed with D&D. The standard races, classes, and six ability scores are all there, with little change between them. In addition to class and race, each character also gets a Background (a combination of mechanical element from 4e and a pre-determined choice of 3e feats) and a Theme (almost identical to a Kit from 2e). While these are nice touches, they serve as little more than cursory elements--chosen once, with little variation or customization to come. While WotC has claimed to be shooting for a "modular" rules-set, there is little evidence of such in play currently.
But, it's still D&D at its core...just a mish-mashed, unenthused version of D&D, pulling its mechanics from prior editions like Herbert West pulling bodies from a grave. Elves still get bow proficiency and a dexterity bonus, halflings and dwarves still get a speed penalty, and fighters still suck out loud.
I'm fully aware of the continual argument over the fighter in terms of D&D--some believe that fighter should be the "simple" class, given to newbies and those players who prefer limited or simplistic options, while others (myself included) relished tactical elements, enemy placement, and holding aggro. However, the fighter present in the D&D Next playtest was dumbed down to the point of disinterest.
The frustrating portion of the playtest, for me, was the fact that the PlatinumChick's "guardian" cleric served a better job as a fighter than the actual fighter did! She had 3 higher AC, dealt almost as much damage with a one-handed weapon and a single buff spell, and still was able to buff the party and provide out-of-combat healing!
Unfortunately, while the PlatinumChick's cleric out-fightered the fighter, it absolutely failed at fulfilling its own archetype of sagacious healer! The playtest packet contained two clerics--one "tanked" cleric and one "laser" cleric--in order to show off the 'versatility' of the cleric class, though it only went to show that the clerics provided could do precisely one thing well--fight in melee, heal/cast as a spellcaster, etc. The actual class differences between the two clerics, however, came only in spell choices and in their choice "Channel Divinity"--a holdover from 4e, which relied on the use of Turn Undead attempts. If real difference and variety is the end goal for clerics, why not replace Turn Undead entirely and give a domain-related ability?
The wizard and rogue, thematically, were closest to their archetypal roots, though they weren't without their own issues. Both clerics and the wizard were given at-will attack spells (coming straight from 4e), though both relied on Vancian-style 2e spellcasting. However, either the wizard's spells were incredibly underpowered or the rogue's Backstab ability was massively overpowered. After achieving stealth (possibly every other round, as the rogue could hide behind his own party members!), the rogue could pull off a ranged backstab dealing 1d8+3d6+ability mod! Every other round! The poor wizard, on the other hand, could only manage such damage maybe twice a day, using his Arc Lightning spell. Our wizard and rogue player--FridayNightWill and Chris I, respectively--probably had the best time of the group, but even they were left dissatisfied.
As a GM, I had similar problems with running the adventure. A revamp of the old 1e adventure, "The Caves of Chaos", the session brought next to no actual opportunity to role-play, eschewing characterization and interesting NPCs in lieu of dungeon-crawling and combat. Okay, I can understand that on some degree, as the playtest is meant to exercise the combat rules. But, the adventure's set up and organization was amazingly miserable. Monster mini-stat blocks were tossed into the adventure at seemingly random points, and did not include basic, vital information like initiative bonuses or special defenses. I had to keep referring back to the Bestiary packet, which defeats the entire purpose of having mini-stat blocks in the adventure!
That said, the game wasn't entirely a wash. Here and there, the game managed to shock me with a novel concept or idea which really made for an elegant change. The "Advantage/Disadvantage" mechanic provided a quick and easy way to adjucate basic benefits and drawbacks, and my group didn't have the seeming "Advantage-fishing" issue that some other playtest groups seemed to have had. While the mechanic itself is a little "swing-y" in terms of mathematics, it makes for a spectacular way to toss out bonuses and penalties.
Similarly, the replacement of Fortitude/Reflex/Will saving throws with saves based directly on the core 6 ability scores made for a novel and intuitive change. However, I worry about how these will hash out at higher levels, particularly if the dreaded "Christmas Tree" effect of prior editions carries over. Skills actually work almost identically to Saving Throws, as well, which makes for an awkward sense of understanding. Coupled with that, there are few ways to customize ones' skills, as they're intrinsically linked to Themes and Backgrounds. As such...yeah. Skills are almost negligiable in this edition.
All told, we did not have fun with D&D Next. The enjoyment we had at the table really came only from our own table-banter and from another's company, which we could do with almost anything. Not saying that's bad, but the D&D Next playtest failed to engage my group on almost every level. There's a lot of work to be done on this edition before release...and a lot to be done to win us back over from the numerous other games that we're enjoying.