Why I’m Worried About The D&D Next Playtest

I’ve been participating in the D&D Next playtest. So far, I think what I’ve seen is OK.  But I’m not sure it’s totally valid.  Here’s why.

Playtesting a subset of a rule system is deceptive.  I thought the core mechanic in 4e was just fine, it was more all the junk they ladled on top of it that was a dealkiller.

One of the main things I want out of D&D Next is to make the core rules slimmer and simpler – more like Basic/Red Box or 2e than these 300, 400, 500+ page legal tomes we’re saddled with as Player’s Handbooks nowadays. Simplifying D&D is how you’ll get the next generation on board. The initial playtest packet *seems* nicely streamlined – but is that just because they’re only giving us a small subset?

I’m getting concerned about whether they’ll be showing enough restraint that Next won’t turn into the same bloated mess.  Already they are adding on more and more stuff to the core rules because ‘someone wanted it.’ I don’t believe we need a wizard and a sorcerer and a warlock in the core rules.  I believe we need a wizard, and the others can be added on in optional supplements later. Sure, someone wants them – someone wants everything.  That’s why design by committee is a Godawful way of doing things. “Next will be maximally inclusive” looks like it may be code for that. We have opportunity attacks back too, and fighter powers.  Nice frosting but not must haves.

I don’t mind adding things on – but not in the core rules.  Everyone feels entitled to have access to everything in the core rules. Everyone pretty much has to read and understand everything in the core rules. The core rules need to be the true core of the game – fighter, wizard, cleric, thief; dwarf, elf, halfling, human; exploration rules and some weapons and some spells, go. We had plenty of fun with just that from the Red Box. That’s Dungeons & Dragons.

Mike Mearls, pay attention – if you cannot make the Player’s Handbook no more than 128 pages long, you will have failed. Take all those two years with of “but we want this other thing too” comments and pack them the hell away for future product releases. (Naturally if you are putting DM info, magic items, monsters etc. into the book so it’s a core rulebook not just a player’s handbook you get a little slack here, but you probably shouldn’t do that.)

I already have a 500 page D&D game that works fine.  I’m not interested in another.  The only way you lure me away is with a leaner, finer machine. Do it.  Stop now and ship 5e if you can’t resist adding more junk back in.

17 responses to “Why I’m Worried About The D&D Next Playtest

  1. I hear ya! Somewhere between 3e and 4e I hit a wall with RPG book sizes. Now if it looks heavier than a bible I don’t even bother perusing it. Boxed sets have to be the saving grace b/c you can’t cram a 500 page book into one. At least I don’t think you can…

  2. I completely disagree with you on this. Additional classes and races in the core book is inconsequential when compared to the complexity of the system itself.

    You can skip through the 250 pages of powers and abilities for the classes that do not interest you; what you cannot skip over is the overly complex core structure that 4e possesses.

    Minor actions are a waste of time. They help clarify and quantify actions, but take more time than attack rolls (how many times has a player stated, “I still have a minor action” and then flip through their stack of powers looking for something they can do).

    Keyword system is borked and underdeveloped. It was a great idea, add keywords to powers and items to give uniform attributes across the entire system. What went wrong is the keywords are lacking in a lot of items, and underused in others (Inspiring and Reliable keywords could have been great for any class, not just fighters who have it on every power).

    Roles define provide the definition to a character, not the class/race. Leader classes feel nearly identical to each other, strikers deal the same damage in similar environments, etc. This distinction blurs even more as players move up in levels and the flaws and merits of each class level things out. Wizards able to get the leather armor feat, rogues getting aoe damage, rangers causing status effects all blur what each class is good at.

    If you want to argue about reducing the bulk in a core book, get rid of minor actions and a quarter of the class pages will go away. Give each class more/better class features and less powers cards to chose from and even more are removed. Currently, each class description is 2-3 pages long, with 30 pages of powers following it. I would take a robust class feature (or class specific feats) over a selection of different at-wills any day.

    Some of the approaches that D&D next are taking sound good. Removing the DM from an adversarial role and back into a position of a storyteller is a good first step. Making players explain and rationalize to the DM why they should get advantage instead of reading off a card says a lot about the system changes too. Removing overly technical power cards, and adding more style-oriented features/feats to a class will make the game simpler, faster, and more styled class-wise than 4e has offered.

    • I don’t think we disagree. Similarly they have taken minor actions and the things you mention out of D&D Next – or at least they’re not in the playtest. But I’m worried that either a) they’ll add that stuff back in due to the cries for “more more more” or b) it’s still there anyway and just not part of the playtest materials. I agree with you that there’s core stuff that affects gameplay more than more or less classes, but this is signaling to me a general lack of a “lean and restrained” approach.

  3. I thought the same thing after getting the second set of playtest rules. And, it’s just going to get worse in the next two years.

  4. This is one of the things I predicted about D&DNext – it will be hard to format it. The rules-lite people will want a skinny core book and everything added to be separate. The rules-heavy people will want all the added content to be listed in the areas next to the stuff they modify. Without creating multiple versions of the books they have to annoy one set or another. I can see them having multiple versions with PDF’s and print-on-demand, but not for the official books. (Heck, with PDF’s they can potentially have both in one file by using layers)

    I don’t want to get off-topic discussing 4e’s attributes, but there’s one comment I can’t let go. @Eric Foss, you comments on minor actions a table management issue, not one inherent in the game. We don’t have a problem with it in my groups. If you don’t have a minor action ready, then you don’t perform one and we move on. Same thing with interrupts and free actions. It’s the player’s responsibility to know what they can do and be ready to do it. This is the same way we play every game.

  5. I agree. The thing I like most about the second and third sets of playtest materials is that the rules are light but are elegant enough to cover most situations; at the moment it’s a bit scrappy but it’s a complete rpg in fewer than a hundred pages. What worried me is that by the time the game comes out in a year or two, it’s going to be full of bloat as a result of putting all kinds of unnecessary stuff back in; for example, opportunity attacks came back in the most recent rules, but we’re ignoring them as we didn’t miss them at all in the previous set.

    I really want to see a concise single-volume version of D&D — there’s a reason why so many people like the Rules Cyclopedia after all — but I don’t think WotC will be able to resist putting out three hardback books, with all the needless expansion that will require.

  6. I agree with your call to keep game rule complexity to an elegant level but I think having more options for our character development (including classes and what-not) is what a lot of people love in their sophisticated worlds they play in.

    In the “digital age” of D&D (meaning everything can be housed and retrieved though a character creator or something similar), it isn’t a bad thing to have lots of character options. It might mean you don’t read them all, even though you are reading the core rules thoroughly. True, its a different mindset from the “I read the book from cover to cover.” I am an older gamer who played 1st Edition D&D (and devoured the books as mentioned!) and even I’ve embraced the digital deliver system.

    I don’t think having player options is necessarily contrary to having an elegant rule system. Personally, I would like both lots of character options and a solid core system. if it was the other way way around, you mean I’d have to pick from a noble, commoner or sage for all my character backgrounds for the first year? Um, no thanks. 😉

    • It’s possible to have a lot of player options and elegance, but difficult. The issue is that each new option needs to be playtested with every other option it can possibly interact with. For example, in Pathfinder, you can make a legal 1st level character with a stealth bonus of +23, and higher in certain situations. (For those not familiar with the rules, an average character who isn’t specializing in perception would have between +1 and +5. Even an expert focusing in perception would have a hard time beating +13) This isn’t very elegant as it means that the character can easily sneak past most threats and would likely beat even the few specialists.

      Solving this problem isn’t easy either. You either have to limit what options you add or limit how these options interact. 4e’s power system shows one example of how to limit interaction – if you have two different powers that each take a move action, you can’t use them together. 4e’s system works in that way, but it has other drawbacks.

      Obviously, a good GM can solve these problems. But imagine the cost of a game if they had to include a good GM in every boxed set. Not to mention the stocking problems for the stores.

    • I agree with you, Jim. It’s great if you have a group that is made up of a fighter, magic-user, thief and cleric, but if you limit the other possibilities for character choice then you necessarily limit the number of people that will jump on the product and use it. I know that a number of people were pissed with 4E due to backwards compatability issues and I hear that, but if those same people are asking for the sleekest, most stripped down version of the rules (including classes available and races available) then they’re being hypocrites. There are a lot of classes that have existed in D&D over the years and many of them are favourites. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the psion or battlemind or ardent (the last two just from 4E and maybe 3E and the psion used to be just a psionicist in 2E) should be in the core book. They’ve never been in the core book of any edition. But I do think that saying that adding the sorceror or warlock is too much bloat is doing both 3E and 4E an injustice. So far, they’ve said that any class that was a core class in any of the first PHBs of any edition should be available in some form in 5E and I think that’s fine. The sorceror and wizard and warlock may have spell overlap and that’s great since they can use the same spell-list and it will take up less room. Same with clerics and paladins.

      Anyway, the key is that if this is a game that is supposed to “unite the editions”, you can’t leave a whole bunch of character races and character classes in the corner without leaving out players from some edition or another. As it stands, if I converted the characters of my 4E group into 5E characters, I would be out 3 races and 1 class for 7 player characters and all 3 races are non-core book races that I would approximate (or ideally would have very brief write-ups at the back of the MM like in 4E). That’s if all core classes from all PHBs of all editions are included. It makes conversion possible. 4E sucked at that since druid and bard (and assassin, to be fair to 1E) weren’t in the first PHB and that did turn off players from the edition. Okay, rant over.

  7. This is a bit OT, but have they addressed how they are going to repair the Forgotton Realms? By advancing the time line 100 years, they pretty much nuked all of the cool NPC’s and altered the history of the world to the point no return. The only way I seem them fixing it is by some lame time reversal thing.

  8. Pingback: Is Wizards suffering from innovator’s dilemma? « Wandering Monster Studios

  9. I’m hoping for the following with D&D Next:

    1. A box set that doesn’t have much more than the current playtest rules — without Warlock and Sorcerer. You get 4 races, 4 classes, backgrounds, specialties, spells, equipment, core rules, a few levels, a starter adventure, a few dice, bam. That’s all you need to get started — so you get the real Red Box experience. You don’t need to go buy a ton of stuff, you just can if you want.

    2. A set of Big 3 books that expands from there. 10-20 levels of progression. The core 4 races plus gnomes, half-orcs, half-elves. The core 4 classes plus sorcerers, warlocks, rangers, druids, barbarians. Some campaign rules, other enhanced ruleset bits, and general DM advice. A wider selection of monsters and treasure. Basically, roughly the scope of the core 3e rulebooks. Want some of that in your campaign? Buy the books. Happy with the box set? Ignore it.

    3. As many other books as your heart desires — epic rules, psionics rules, setting books, modules, character option explosion books, optional deep campaign rulesets, optional deep mini tactical warfare rulesets, and whatever else there is. Plus minis, dungeon tiles, and anything else they can come up with.

    The point is, start with the simplest possible set of core rules, then expand out from there only as much as you want. They tried to get back to that with the Essentials line, but it was a completely mismanaged product with no real constituency (not 4e players, who didn’t need weird variant starter sets, not fans of earlier editions, who didn’t want 4e).

    If they can deliver that, and the core rules are (1) easy to understand and learn, (2) soundly designed, and (3) fun to play, then I think they can be successful.

  10. AD&D 2e 4LIFE

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