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Over Memorial Day weekend, my college gaming buddies and I got together for a multi-day gaming binge. We took the opportunity to try out the public playtest of the next edition of D&D. (In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, the announcement of the upcoming edition was published all over the place this January, including but not limited to mainstream media like the New York Times.)

In a nutshell, we had a good time and felt some aspects of the rules worked really well for our style. I’m cautiously optimistic about this edition, with one significant reservation I’ll explain later.

What’s in the Playtest

The playtest materials are a bare-bones set of materials needed to play the game: five pre-generated characters, a 31-page(!) rule book, another 9-page rule booklet on how to run the game, and an adventure. Part of the stated goals of the playtest are to find out whether these bare-bones materials are enough: whether you can have an enjoyable game that is recognizably D&D.

The answer, by the way, is “basically, yes.” There were definitely moments in the game where the rules didn’t give me quite the support I was looking for, but most of the time I and all my players could pretty much figure out how to use the rules to resolve actions.

The Caves of Chaos

The adventure included in the playtest packet was called The Caves of Chaos. It was a 5E conversion of (portions of) the oldie-and-not-so-goodie, Dungeon Module B2: Keep on the Borderlands. I had never actually played Keep on the Borderlands; the first edition of D&D I owned was the “blue box” Basic D&D set, but my boxed set came with Dungeon Module B1: Into the Unknown. It turns out I did not miss much.

The point of the playtest was not to evaluate the quality of The Caves of Chaos, and the point of my review of the playtest is not to dwell on the crummy adventure. I’ll try to be brief.

The Caves of Chaos is devoid plot or objective. It’s just a map and a list of rooms full of monsters, which are frequently too numerous or too powerful for a low-level party to defeat. The Caves of Chaos leaves the Dungeon Master on his own to come up with a reason for the player-characters to want to go into the dungeon. It points out that the monsters should react to the player-characters’ actions: for example, if the characters clear out the goblins’ caves then kobolds or hobgoblins should move into that empty space. So the Dungeon Master is expected to rewrite the scenario on the fly once play begins. I think the idea was for Keep on the Borderlands to be an open-ended scenario like the true classic, The Temple of Elemental Evil, but either they did it wrong or they cut out all the useful and interesting bits to make The Caves of Chaos. On top of this, the DM has to bend over backward to steer the players away from a TPK, which is often just one wrong turn away. All together, this is the first published adventure module I’ve seen where I can confidently say making up own adventure would have been less work.

Classic Monsters

The booklet of monsters includes many classics, not only the obligatory orcs and hobgoblins but also berserkers, fire beetles, and one of my personal favorites, the gelatinous cube! The monster descriptions are close to those in the original Monster Manual (or as I call it, the One True Monster Manual). For example, fire beetles give off reddish light from chemical glands on their heads and abdomens, just like they did in the good old days. It’s as if the Fourth Edition travesty of fire beetles who breathe fire never happened. The monster descriptions have been updated with useful notes on the monsters’ tactics, habitat, and behavior, but their tone is much like that of First Edition AD&D. Reading the monsters felt like catching up with an old friend who has been doing interesting things. This leaves me optimistic that the designers are serious about getting back to basics and that they respect the traditions of the game.

Pre-Generated Characters

In this version of the playtest, the designers provided characters for us. This makes a lot of sense from thee designers’ point of view, as it allows playtesters to exercise the rules, not the character designs. The characters were unremarkable: a dwarf fighter, an elf wizard, a halfling rogue, and two clerics: a dwarf fighting cleric and a human cleric who’s more of a healer and a spellcaster. As predictable as these characters are, everyone at the table was able to find something he or she wanted to play.

I’ll discuss how these characters performed in play a bit later.

Simplified Combat Rules

This playtest has a rather minimalistic set of combat rules. I think there still needs to be some fine-tuning of the exact combat statistics of the characters and monsters. That’s not the point, at this stage of development. The point is that battles were playable and fun. Most of our battles lasted 3-7 rounds, which is a bit longer than First Edition AD&D (at first level) but a lot shorter than Fourth Edition. It felt about right. Player characters didn’t have a the wealth of tactical options they have in 4E, but we found we missed them a lot less than we expected. The combat rules were so lightweight, we found it easy to stay “in character,” and that added all the interest we needed.

No Opportunity Attacks

Conspicuously absent was any rule resembling attacks of opportunity. The playtest rules explicitly state that a character can move, attack, and then move again as long as he doesn’t exceed his total movement rate for the round. As one poster to the EN World message boards put it, “everyone gets Spring Attack!”

This made battles “fluid,” as one player put it. It took a while for us to get the hang of it, but once we did, we found the nature of combat was really changed from recent editions. Every round became a decision about what the player wants to do, not what he safely can do. It was liberating.

I think opportunity attacks are gone for good from the basic rules — they may come back in an optional module. The design team seems to be working hard on speeding up the pace of combat, and freedom of movement is a major contributor to the new, fast pace. The designers also have written about making the rules playable without miniatures and a grid: they call it “theater of the mind” style. We used to play First and Second Edition that way all the time. We really want to see that remain possible, and I think we are not alone in that sentiment.

There were a couple of rules I was looking for but weren’t there, like what happens if a character shoots arrows at an enemy who is in melee with an ally. (I guess everyone gets Precise Shot!) In fact, the basic mechanics were robust and flexible enough that it was easy to improvise.

Improvised Mounted Combat

The only situation I where really went off the script was mounted combat. The player-characters were fleeing through the woods from the hobgoblin boss and her bodyguards. I had sent a small squad of cavalry from the proverbial Keep on the Borderlands to maintain the characters’ camp and keep horses ready in case they needed to run for it (remember what I said about bending over backward to avoid a TPK?). When the characters made it to camp and told the soldiers how many hobgoblins were in pursuit, the soldiers replied, “we can take ’em! Let’s saddle up, circle around, and charge them from the flank!” So they did, with the player-characters leading the charge of course.

This went amazingly well. Fifth Edition (I refuse to call it “D&D Next” on grammatical grounds) has a permissive model for skill use: a character can do anything using an ability check (using Strength, Dexterity, etc.). Skills, if present, provide a bonus. They’re almost never required to make the attempt. Groovy, I thought, everyone, even the wizard, knows how to fight from horseback! There’s a rule that lances do (massive) bonus damage if you move on horseback before an attack — that’s the closest thing to rules for charging that were in the playtest. The ability to do this, attack, and move away again gave the mounted characters a major edge. I would point out that this was the first time in D&D where fighting from horseback seemed more advantageous than fighting on foot.

The hobgoblins put up a good fight none the less. They were armed with throwing spears so I had them use tactics straight from medieval almogavars: a throw a spear at the horse and then rush the rider when he falls. I had to make up the rules for what happens when a character’s horse gets injured or killed, and I was cruel: every time the horse takes a hit, the rider must make a Dexterity check to remain mounted or a Charisma check to control the horse. It was easy for me to adjudicate on the fly.

In all, the players lost one horse and had one of the player-characters wounded (dropped to 0 hit points), and the hobgoblins were wiped out. The leader put up a good fight and had the players biting their nails until she finally fell. It was fun, especially as I watched the players figure out cavalry tactics on the fly and get more effective the longer the fight lasted. We could not have done something like this with Third of Fourth Edition D&D; the “detailed” combat would rules get in the way. Such are the merits of simplicity.

A Couple of Rough Spots

This is not to say the playtest rules were perfect. We didn’t really understand the rules for the rogue using stealth in combat. I am pretty sure I did it wrong and made stealth far too effective. We think the armor rules need work. I would prefer to have explicit rules for some common situations like charging and firing missiles into melee. Good riddance to opportunity attacks, but the playtest rules also eliminated the difference between move actions, standard actions, and minor actions, and I do think the game suffers a little from that omission.

Healing and Resting

The designers need to work on the rules for healing and resting. It takes too long to bring a character back from zero hit points, yet players bounce back very quickly from anything short of that. As the rules stand, someone who goes down to zero hit points remains unconscious for 2d6 hours, then comes back at 1 hit point and can take a long rest. Although this is more or less in line with the tradition of early editions of D&D, I have become used to the more forgiving healing rules of Third and Fourth Edition and I want to get the players back into action more quickly. One time when the cleric was hors de combat the remaining characters set up a camp inside the dungeon so she could recover, and it took more than half an hour for them to decide where to hole up and how to defend their camp. Boring! One of the strengths of 4E is that it minimizes this sort of downtime. I hope elements of that come back in to Fifth Edition.

The Characters

All of the characters were straighforward to play. We had four players; two of them really liked how their characters performed, and two of them perceived some problems.

Dwarf Fighter

The dwarf fighter does a highly satisfying amount of damage with her greataxe: 2d6+7. This is probably too high, especially in comparison to the first-level monsters. Still, it was refreshing to see a fighter who is better at fighting than the other first-level character. Regrettably, her poor Armor Class of 15 made her a bit of a paper tiger. The rogue also has an AC of 15 and no one expects him to go toe-to-toe with a hobgoblin. I can’t count the number of times the other characters had to scrape the fighter off the battlefield with a spatula.

Partly this is due to the unfair armor rules in the playtest draft, which deny a character in heavy armor his Dexterity bonus to AC. Partly it’s a baffling preoccupation D&D designers seem to have with over-valuing offense at the expense of defense. I’ve seen it Third Edition with the barbarian, who looks fierce but crumbles in battle against three orcs, and in Fourth Edition with the myriad striker classes, all of whom need a combat rescue team the moment they stray more than 10 feet from the party.

It seems mathematically obvious to me that if the player-characters are outnumbered by monsters, Armor Class is more important than Hit Points. A character who is fighting on the front lines and exposed to a lot of attacks is going to bust like a piñata by Round 3 if he’s easy to hit. It’s as simple as that.

It will be easy to fix the fighter, though, by improving her Armor Class in some way. That could be as simple as changing her starting equipment; more likely, a revision to the armor rules is in order. D&D has always had a problem with heavy armor being under-rated relative to light armor: fixing that may be all the help the 5E fighter needs.

Elf Wizard

The player who ran the elf wizard had a really good time. The wizard in 5E has a good selection of spells she can cast at will. Magic Missile is on that list. Some people on the EN World message boards and elsewhere think casting Magic Missile at-will is over-powered. I don’t really agree. The wizard’s player really appreciated having an option every round that couldn’t fail. It’s frustrating to have a big spell miss or have the enemy make his saving throw, and an at-will Magic Missile provides a nice contrast to that.

Another nice thing about the elf wizard was the elf’s racial power of perception. This gave the wizard something really useful to do outside of combat. I wonder whether that power encroaches a bit on the ranger’s territory. We haven’t even seen a 5E ranger yet, so it’s too early to worry about that. At this point, I can just say I appreciated having racial powers that matter.

Halfling Rogue

The rogue performed very well, but I think that’s because we misunderstood the rules for stealth and made it too easy. I think if we had played the stealth rules as written, the rogue would have been under-powered.

One small change that made a big difference was that the rogue gets benefits from stealth, not from flanking (as in 3E and 4E). The 5E rogue has the ability to literally hide behind his allies. This means the rogue’s powers work if he is directly behind someone else. In past editions, the rogue’s powers worked when he was off on his own. This caused the rogue to be chronically over-exposed to enemies and require rescue and/or healing. In 5E, our rogue worked best striking from a protected position behind the cleric and fighter. That felt so right, I never want to go back to the old way.

The rogue class still needs some work. With the 5E model of skills, where skills aren’t required to attempt most feats, the idea of a rogue as a skill-using class no longer makes sense. I like the fact that the party can make do without a rogue (say by having an elf to search for traps), but it does mean the rogue needs some kind of new pizazz to make him worth playing.

Dwarf Cleric of Moradin

Our player who chose the dwarf cleric of Moradin usually enjoys playing clerics. She said the 5E fighting cleric was disappointing. Her spells are too weak; the only one that is really good is Healing Word. Divine Favor is not worth spending a round to cast. The way clerics prepare spells was poorly explained and I am pretty sure the player didn’t understand how it was supposed to work.

The way the cleric’s spells are supposed to work are that the cleric has a short list of spells but can cast any of them at any time, subject to the limits of how many spells she can cast of a given spell level each day. This makes sense from a role-playing point of view: the cleric prays for whatever kind of aid she needs at the moment. The only problem I have with this is that the spells need to be good enough that spending a round to cast one is worth it. Now, if 5E were to bring back minor actions and make most of the cleric’s spells into minor actions, we would be in business!

I think the 5E cleric is muddled in design and presentation. The rules should not call what a cleric does “preparing spells.” That’s unnecessarily confusing because when a wizard “prepares” spells, he chooses only a few spells from his repertoire, and when a cleric “prepares” spells he chooses every spell in his repertoire. There’s also too much baggage from past editions. The 5E model of spell selection for a cleric is inspired and revolutionary, but not carried through to the logical conclusion. Under this new model, it becomes very unclear why turning undead needs to be a separate power from casting spells. In short, I think “spell casting” and “channel divinity” powers should be combined under one mechanic. Such willingness to break with tradition a bit could really clean up the cleric’s design, reduce bookkeeping, and leave us with a very versatile cleric who is interesting to play and fundamentally different from all the other classes. I see the potential but unfortunately I don’t have the ear of the design team so I can’t tell them how to polish this diamond-in-the-rough.

Human Cleric of Pelor

We didn’t play the human cleric of Pelor so I don’t have much to say about this character. I do notice that humans in this draft of 5E seem to lack racial powers. That’s not only unfair, it’s untenable as a design. The powers that dwarves, elves, and halflings get are very useful. Humans need equally useful powers or no one will want to play them.

Themes: My Biggest Reservation

The 5E sample character sheets feature something called “themes,” which are new to 5E. As far as I can tell, themes are bundles of powers or feats or whatnot that specialize a character in some way. The themes in the 5E playtest are “Guardian” (dwarf cleric of Moradin), “Healer” (human cleric of Pelor), “Slayer” (dwarf fighter), “Lurker” (halfling rogue), and “Magic-User” (elf wizard).

I am not yet certain how themes will look in the finished rules, but I am deeply skeptical about where they seem to be headed. Themes seem to me to build on everything that’s wrong with character design in 3E and 4E: they look like railroad tracks where the player picks one theme early in the character’s career and then has no real alternative to progressing along that track. It’s 3E’s feats-with-prerequisites and prestige classes, or 4E’s straitjacketed class concepts and paragon paths. What if I want to play a character who doesn’t fit one of the themes the designers spoon-fed me? What if I start with one theme and then my character develops in a different direction?

In my experience, there are three kinds of D&D players. First, there are the power-gamers who want to make optimal choices and build a powerful character. There is nothing wrong with this approach and a lot of power-gamers are pleasant and fun to play with. Second, there are the role-players, who want to develop their characters as fictional people, sometimes in unexpected and even sub-optimal ways. There are plenty of people who combine power-gaming and role-playing in different proportions. Third, there are the novice and casual players who don’t yet know whether they are power-gamers or role-players, and want some hand-holding while making character choices.

Here’s the problem: themes only seem like they would help that third category of player, and would get in the way of the other two. (Themes are more obviously a detriment to the role-player, but if players cannot mix and match powers à la carte, the power-gamers will not stay satisfied for long.) I am all in favor of providing some support for the novice and casual players, but it makes no sense to throw the hardcore players under the bus to do it.

I’m so hostile to the idea of themes that I have a hard time reading the 5E designers’ postings where they gush about them. I do notice they are saying some of the right things: players will be able to make their own themes, or themes will be optional, or statements of that sort. EN World as a good roundup of what’s been discussed so far. Even if the best happens and themes really won’t be forced down my throat, they will still be a distraction that draws design effort away from supporting free-form, well-balanced choices that the players can make themselves. I don’t want them and I am worried that the 5E designs seem much too enamored with their new idea.

As much as I dislike themes, backgrounds are a different story. The thing about a character’s background is that there’s no need or desire to change it once the character has started play. So backgrounds as they seem to be implemented in 5E are very welcome and I look forward to using them.