D&D Next playtest review

I've already reported on my first playtest session for Dungeons & Dragons "Next" (Fifth Edition). Stepping back from the Player Characters and the events within that tabletop role-playing game, here are some thoughts about the rules.

The Keep on the Borderlands

The Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos

First, let's take a look at the participants. Jason E.R., Bruce K., and Rich C.G., the newest members of the face-to-face, Boston-area groups, sat out the D&D Next playtest, but we had some returning and new gamers to round out our face-to-face adventuring party.

-Beruk A.: Our font of pop culture references, Beruk is one of the first gamers I met in the Boston area, and all of his characters have strong personalities and terrible luck. Since Josh had already claimed the pregenerated Half-Elf Wizard, Beruk played a human Mage.

-Brian W.: Like me, Brian is a 40-something grognard who has fond memories of games from the early 1980s. He likes lighter rules sets such as Savage Worlds more than recent editions of D&D. Brian is a proponent of Dungeon Crawl Classics, which is part of the retro-clone movement and the so-called Old School Renaissance. He has been hosting our face-to-face gatherings since I moved from Needham to Waltham, Mass.

-Sara F.: Sara is the youngest person in my current groups (under 30) and an experienced role-player, with a preference for non-human characters — we "reskinned" her Halfling as an intelligent raccoon — and simpler systems such as Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (FATE 3e).

-Josh C.: Sara's boyfriend is a Game Master who came of age during the 1990s, when White Wolf's Storyteller: the World of Darkness was dominant. Josh has played and run AD&D2, D&D3.x, and Pathfinder, among other systems. His "Spelljammer: the Show Must Go On" miniseries, using FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre, is just winding down on Sunday nights.

-Thomas K.Y.: Primarily a player of video games and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games such as City of Heroes, Thomas did play D&D3.0 and D20 Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed. with us a few years ago.

-Kai-Yin H.: A novice to tabletop role-playing games, Thomas' girlfriend is a good sport and has attended several genre movies with us. Of the pregenerated characters, I gave Kai-Yin the Dwarf Fighter because it was the simplest.

How did D&D Next play? As Dungeon Master, I was glad to be able to use flavor and statistics from the oD&D (BECMI), AD&D2, and D&D3.x versions of the classic Keep on the Borderlands module. I had no difficulty combining Non-Player Characters, maps and scene descriptions, or monsters from the different editions of the "Caves of Chaos."

We used mostly pregenerated characters, with the notable exceptions of Sara's raccoon Rogue and Beruk's human Wizard. I didn't make any mechanical adjustments to their statistics — we just described and role-played them differently. Since we had two Wizards and two Clerics, more example spells would have been helpful for distinguishing and developing them.

I would have liked more guidance in the playtest PDFs of how to create or customize P.C.s in the event of a larger group or to avoid duplication. If I continue this playtest with my Sunday night telecom fantasy group, we'll have more tweaking to do.

I thought that D&D Next's backgrounds (similar to "aspects" in FATE) and themes (similar to combat roles in D&D4e) added a decent layer to character's origins and abilities without too much complication. It looks like feats from D&D3.x/D20 will come in here. I wanted to see Bard, Ranger and Paladin options, whether as backgrounds/themes or as full occupational classes.

I liked using D&D5e/Next's ability score checks and simplified skill list, but Thomas and Josh said it would have been nice to know the math behind some of the playtest's precalculated bonuses.

The Player Character record sheets could have been clearer for novices like Kai-Yin, and Wizards of the Coast (WotC) could have provided more guidance for alignment/motivation. Josh noted that Pathfinder's alignment descriptions are particularly clear. Equipment and weapon descriptions could have been more specific or interesting for modern players unfamiliar with fantasy tropes, such as different types of armor and weapons.

Combat ran reasonably smoothly and faster in D&D Next than for any edition past AD&D1. Smaller stat blocks for opponents were definitely a plus. Hit points and damage seemed initially high — 100+ for an Owlbear — but if the advancement curve is flatter, that might be OK. Thomas mentioned that simple D20-derived rules for firing into melee/friendly fire and certain conditions would have been helpful.

We liked D&D Next's advantage/disadvantage method of rolling 2d20, but we didn't care for its healing, which was almost as easy as in D&D4e. Thomas also pointed out that more of the rules should have been in natural language with more explanatory sidebars.

Admittedly, this was the first session in a while or ever for some gamers, but money, movement, and some spell descriptions caused confusion even though they were on the character sheets or in the rules packets. I agree with Josh that a one-page "cheat sheet" of rules summaries would have been helpful, and should in fact be all that's required (with page references) for a fully playable game.

Overall, as other reviews have noted, this playtest of D&D Next feels a lot like stripped-down D&D3.x/D20, with bits from D&D4e. It ran smoothly, allowing for some player creativity and D.M. discretion, but as a mostly combat-oriented module, we haven't gotten very far with character development or problem solving yet.

I know I'm a little late to the party with these observations, but readers and fellow role-players may find them helpful as we compare notes on the D&D Next playtest.

We'll see whether WotC can live up to its promises for more online support, easy session prep, rules modularity, and the ability to appeal both to nostalgia and the desire for novelty among gamers of all ages. D&D5e/Next still has a ways to go before it can be more than a Hasbro brand, compete with Pathfinder and other games, and dominate our now-shrinking hobby as its predecessors did.

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