WOTC is regularly releasing playtest packets for their next edition, generically dubbed “D&D Next.” Supposedly avoiding the moniker “5th edition” will prevent players from becoming jaded with another rules overhaul. Also, “Next” purports to be a return to the “truer” D&D of prior editions, re-introducing many mechanics abandoned in 4th.
Though I haven’t (yet) playtested with a group, as a DM of 17 years I form definite opinions based solely on reading the rules.
One endeavor uniquely qualifies me to judge how tabletop rules actually work: In college, I undertook unprecedented effort to track statistics in play. Each session, players were to report:
- How often they hit/missed an attack
- How much damage they dealt
- How often they were hit/missed by foes
- How much damage they received
- Were they ever unconscious
I compiled these reports into master spreadsheets, where I would evaluate:
- % contribution to group totals
- Ranking within the group for damage dealth, hit rate, killing blows, etc.
Since the group consisted of 11 players, I had a wealth of information. I’ve never heard of another GM doing anything like this; perhaps they have, but I’ve never heard of it. GMing is daunting enough without extra homework (let alone math-based homework in a storytelling medium!)
This experience revealed specific trends:
- Players with above average ability scores (rolled) DOMINATED play with both accuracy and damage
- And as a result, garnered most of the party’s rewards, because the party wanted to reward their star quarterback
- One player was cheating, manipulating his dice rolls. (Ambiguous in a single session, overwhelmingly evident in trending statistics.)
- With access to 4th-spell-level Flamestrike, a previously useless druid started contributing over 50% of the group’s damage henceforth
- Spellcaster accuracy was the envy of melee combatants, since theassumptionis that it hit, and only “saving throws” could negate
These results led me to alter my GM positions:
- Ability Scores were point-buy, no matter what system. This generated complaints from players who wanted to “be a rockstar,” but the data proved that every rock star came at the expense of another player being a dud.
- I despised the Vancian “spells per day” magic system, though it was years before D&D offered an alternative
- I despised the Linear Warriors/Quadratic Wizards progression, because again, it meant that rock stars came at the expense of other players, whose usefulness had vanished. (Again, years before D&D offered an alternative.)
Where 4E Failed
At a glance, 4th edition seemed to solve my complaints. For the first time, classes had identical progression; acquiring powers at the same rate. Wizards and Clerics rolled attacks, and could miss. This chafed spellcasters, but its parity is hard to argue. 4E introduced martial classes with AoEs and battlefield acumen (like the Warlord), which made playing physical combatant as interesting as spellcasting.
For the first time in D&D, the GM’s chair wasn’t the only intriguing one. I finally wanted to play. And a melee class! Previously unheard of.
But 4E introduced a host of additional problems. Hit point totals were so large, combat lasted forever — even with quick rolls, rapid arbitration and easy encounters. I became loathe to design an adventure with >3 encounters because it would take multiple sessions to resolve.
The “all characters can heal themselves” mechanic, combined with actual healing powers being Minor Actions (that is, free compared to attacks) meant that healing was never an issue, so parties never felt in danger. Encounter powers, plus the option of restoring everything with “extended rest” perpetuated the 15-minute workday. The most viable tactic was for players to unload everything on the monsters, rest, rinse, repeat. Need your Daily power back? Just take a longer rest. More about this in detail: http://angrydm.com/2011/02/tearing-4e-a-new-one-short-rests-and-encounter-resources/
The introduction of different “types” of actions meant lost minutes figuring out if Power A could be done simultaneously with Power B (quite often getting it wrong).
While player progression was linear across the board, combat became incredibly complex with a bevy of power interactions, particularly when new classes were introduced (because there was no simple way to multiclass).
Where D&D Next Fails
The return to Vancian magic alone is as offensive to me as a return to villain stereotypes in movies. I thought we’d evolved but it turns out regression is preferred. The knee-jerk reaction of many players to 4E was They Changed It, Now It Sucks, cementing faithfulness to Pathfinder and d20 generic systems among prior edition purists. Wizards is pandering to the purists with a bevy of recycled material. (Seriously, how much creative energy was required to regurgitate spells I’ve had memorized for 15 years?)
Atop this, surveys for D&D Next ask loaded questions like, “Does this FEEL like D&D?” If you’ve played 1st, 2nd, basic, cyclopedia, AD&D, 3rd, 3.5 for 20 years and 4th edition for 2 years, naturally regressive rules feel like D&D, regardless whether they’re fair, effective, interesting or useful. You could restore Jim Crowe Laws and ask whether it feels like the 1950s. If you’re nostalgic for your high school/college buds, D&D Next reminds you of the malt shop where the juke box played nothing but hits. Ignore deliberately unfair rules because they add to the atmosphere. The token rogue feels like a token rogue again!
Clever marketing, Wizards. Most impressive.
D&D Next makes some attempt at parity; spellcasters get spells, physical combatants get “Maneuvers,” which use a gradually-depleting per-day resource (similar to memorized spells, but with infinite room to improvise). Rogues and Fighters are granted additional damage (or sometimes suffer reduced effects) through “expertise dice,” which are the resource for Maneuvers, the melee version of spells.
But even this is misleading and hard to gauge. For example, Vancian magic presents the return of the Spellbook, a Wizard-only artifact that was essential to play, crippling to lose, and nearly incomprehensible to follow. Like all classes in prior editions, rules for Wizards were unique, so any GM that hasn’t recently perused them will be fairly lost. A wizard’s spellbook is integral to his existence and success…damaging or stealing it can provide instant plot points. Stealing the fighter’s sword lacks this impact, not just because the rules are different, but because fighters are less interesting than wizards: As PCs, as adventure hooks or as villains.
D&D Next compounds the issue. In addition to attacks, spells, skills and feats, characters must also choose backgrounds, specialties, and maneuvers. The rules for skills don’t apply apply to maneuvers. If you enjoy playing rogues, you might love the rules for Rogue. And never worry about rules for magic. Life isn’t so easy for the GM. “You can do what? Ok…”
To demonstrate, the rules for Cleric in the latest playtest material are 6 pages long. Compare to Fighter, which only covers 2 pages. Would you assume these classes were comparably complex and intriguing? You may feel that’s a misleading statistic, because Cleric creation requires choosing a deity, and deities (with related powers and spells) had to be explained. Okay, that makes sense…but why were the Fighter’s styles so boring/simple by comparison?
The rules don’t play nice together, as evidenced by the Character Sheet. There’s a place for maneuvers and a place for spells; either space is wasted on 50% of the classes. Is that efficient? I don’t just mean on the sheet — I mean in play when different rules govern different abilities. This is true even within each class. The rules of Vancian magic don’t cover all spellcasting; there are also at-will spells (a nod to a 4E improvement) and rituals, both of which are like spells, but governed by different rules. A high-level damage spell grants a saving throw to reduce its effect. Does a high-level fighter’s attack grant the same?
Who knows? Only the experts at their particular classes/subrules.
When D&D was first created, the tabletop genre was ill-defined. There weren’t video games that had played havoc with character balance and creation options in order to learn hard lessons. To the Rogue, someone playing a Druid might as well be playing a different game.
D&D Next wants to return to that for nostalgia’s sake. I cry foul.
Worse, while it fell short in many ways, the lessons implemented in 4th Edition has nowhere to go, because they’ve been abandoned. So we don’t get gradual improvement. It’s a return to Old Ways A with known faults or Old Ways B with known faults.
Innovation has no place.