DnDNext (5E) is something I find difficult to write about at the moment. When I read people talking about it I often get the feeling that they are treating this first stage of the public play test as a finished product and that they are wilfully ignoring anything that WotC says that indicates this is wrong. It’s a deeply poisonous attitude to have for fostering discussion of the play test. How can we as a community discuss the game effectively if a vocal portion of the community are always shouting about the sky falling?
Still here I am struggling to put into words thoughts on 5E and why I, as a 4E fan, am excited by the future of 5E and DnD as a whole. In discussing this I’m going to proceed from the following ideas; WotC is not keeping secret hidden things from us and that 5E has 8-12 months more development time in it
Firstly WotC is doing development on the game that we are not seeing. This isn’t malign or misleading on their behalf, they are producing the product, this isn’t an open source project, it’s the development of the next iteration of an identity product.This means that WotC works on the game and then because it is a public play test they share things with us once they think they are ready for public consumption to see what we think. This has some important implications; WotC is always going to be in front of the player base on their knowledge of the product and where the rules are most likely to go. There are essentially three layers of 5E at the moment; development, friends & family play test and public play test. As you move away from development the iteration of the rules you are reading gets older. This isn’t keeping secrets or being deceptive, it is how development of a non-open source project naturally proceeds; the existence of an open play test level is a massive boon for us, which is why poisoning the conversations with rhetoric is so hurtful
A Year and a Day
Game products are generally developed 6-12 months before they are released by companies. That lag time is used to get all the things like art and layout done and the materials printed. If you look at the 5E announcements and the timing of events in the next 24 months after that you see that WotC likely has a target of releasing something in late 2013 (GenCon when DnDXP returns) or early 2014 (40th Anniversary of DnD) and that these dates fit with a 12 month development and play testing window followed by 6 months of product polishing. What this means is that there is still at least 6 more months of public play test left for 5E, which is exactly what we see Mike Mearls saying in his Critical Hits interview. That’s quite a bit of time for things to be developed and changed in when you have a team of people whose full-time job is to do just that.
Hooked on a Feeling
So I’ve been talking with people about what 5E could look like for a while now, once it was speculative “What if?” conversations, then it became serious speculation once the 5E announcement was made, then it moved to critical review of the mechanics once the play test documents were in our hands. The thing is only 1 thing in the play test documents was a surprise; advantage/disadvantage. Of all the rules present it is the only really new idea, hit dice for example are clearly rooted in the healing surges if 4E and we expected some sort of mechanic of this nature. What this meant is that we took to the play test looking to see if this game felt like DnD.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the more diverse our gaming experience, in particular with DnD, the more satisfied we were with 5E. Not that all of us like it mind, but the fact that some of us do not like aspects of the play test is a meaningful source of conversation to gather information to feedback to WotC. For example the DM fiat approach that this iteration is heavily dependant on was a strong point of discussion with opinions ranging from “awesome” to “deal breaker”. Personally I fit in the middle, on the one hand I like that 5E makes DM fiat a core part of the game yet on the other I want the rules laid out for the players in the player manual so that the players can make informed decisions about their character’s actions and develop a clear understanding of their character’s abilities. For me this is one of the big things 4E brings to the table; the players can have a clear concept of their character’s abilities.
So much of the point of this play test was “does this feel like DnD?” and for me that answer is a qualified yes. This core feels very much like 2E to me, but with some significant design improvements making it a cleaner and simpler system, yet for me to really get to grips with the DnD feel of the system I will need to build characters and explore the options of the game. This is a good start though.
Crunchings and Munchings
Once we get past the general feel of the game we come to the crunch, the mechanics. This is where I start looking between 4E and 5E, but I do it accepting that WotC has not started refining the mechanical balance of the game. When examining the mechanics of 5E I am looking for simplicity of application, depth of application and extensibility, none of these things hinge on balance but are about how the rules work and what can be done with them.
For example the concept of Advantage/Disadvantage in 5E is very powerful, regardless of what the final mechanic is, that idea of the rule simplifies a lot of the game. Consider the whole circumstance modifiers and stacking bonuses of the last two editions, advantage/disadvantage largely eliminates, if not entirely eliminates these rules, and it does it simply and in a way that game rules align with language rules. For example you are on higher ground than your enemy, this is an advantage so you have advantage. Very simple and elegant. None of this depends on if advantage is a balanced benefit at this time.
In comparison to the Advantage rules I don’t see the same benefits coming from the Hit Dice rules. I understand the intent of the rule, to provide healing that isn’t Cleric (or other healing class) dependant, but it does it by introducing more complexity, especially compared to the simpler system of Healing Surges in 4E. This isn’t to say that the Hit Dice rules are bad, I can actually see how they are extensible to monsters for example, just that perhaps they are not right as the base healing rule and might make a good rules module.
In looking at the rules this way I have a very pro-4E lens, but I also see a lot of 4E in the 5E rules already. There is a subtle heritage of 4E spread through the obvious veneer of 2E that infuses the current 5E play test. It is that heritage that I expect to see become clearer as we start seeing things like the tactical combat rules and the martial maneuvers and so on.