Having had the chance to run the first public outing of D&D Next in the UK, and having been involved in both some of the behind the scenes testing and with the public packets, I’ve had 16 months to play with the rules in various forms. I thought that with D&D Next getting its first mainstream outing due next month with Vault of the Dracolich on Free RPG Day, that now is a good time to consider what I do and don’t like about the system, and in a companion article, figure out a way to hack some of the changes into D&D 4e.
What I Like:
1. Its D&D
It seems a strange one, but its an important one to start with. WotC have stuck with what makes D&D… well… D&D. We’re talking about d20’s, 6 stats from 3 to 18 with modifiers, AC, HP, spells, saving throws, turn undead. The core rules of D&D Next are incredibly streamline, and fairly historic. They could have taken a risk, like they did with feats in 3e, and powers in 4e, and throw some crazy new mechanics into the mix, but they kept it classic.
2. The Rules Don’t Get In The Way
I’ve lost track of the number of games I’ve played, but other than one single game, where we purposely tried to break the rules and nitpicked them to death, the rules have barely been ‘noticed’. Sure, we use them, but beyond a quick reference check on things like turn undead or healers kits or grapple, we don’t find that we have to stop to re-read them. To me, thats the sign of a well designed core.
While the Advantage mechanic is pretty much just a rip off of the Avengers’ shtick from 4e, it is part of the core, and works well. Mathematically, its suspect, but let’s be honest, we like rolling dice, and theres that wonderful moment when your first roll is a 3 and your second roll is a 17 and you hit.
4. Skill Dice
Skills are a difficult system to get right in any rpg, with a high stated but unskilled character often having as good a chance as a poorly stated but trained character. Skill dice, like Advantage, plays off the fact that gamers like to roll dice, and provides a nice random element. I’m not sure if it ever made it to a public playtest, but at one point, skill dice were d4’s and the rogue got to roll d6’s instead. I liked that, it made the rogue have a slight benefit at skills.
When I first saw the paladin, I was unsure about where it would fit in, it looked to similar in power to the fighter martially, and the cleric in spell casting. However, there is just enough to make them all different. Deities and Oaths are brilliantly written, I love they fact that the deities are not specific to a campaign world and instead give real world and rpg history examples. Even the core details aren’t set – words like primarily, usually, often, sometimes… means that DM’s can easily adapt these to their own campaign. I love that the Blackguard was included right from the start. I love the amount of choice in deities and oaths. They are by far my favourite classes to play in D&D Next.
What isn’t there to like about the druid in D&D Next?. It takes inspiration from the recent 4e heroes of the feywild book, its got shape changing. Its got spells, including as one of my friends puts it… The ‘S’ spell… Shillelagh. Its been a great class to watch in action.
I got an early look at Blingdenstone, and it was pretty good, but the work they did to improve it was great. Then theres the fact they included Caves of Chaos, the quintessential sandbox first adventure. And Isle of Dread, the adventure that got me into D&D originally. And theres yet more cool stuff coming, with some great little ideas from Greg Bilsland and Chris Perkins that probably won’t make most people go ‘ooooh’, but were exactly what i’d have done or were so ingenious as to make me wonder how I ever coped before it.
8. Monster Hit Dice
As you’ll see below, I hate hit dice for pc’s, but for monsters, it means you can have some variety in the relative strength of a monster, giving you a minimum hp, an average hp, and a max hp. I think Hit Dice have always been swingy, and i’d tweak them slightly, but still, I like having the option.
9. Arcane Recovery
Wizards get to, once a day, recover a spell slot they’ve used during a rest. That is a brilliant mechanic that lengthens the in game day because its less dictated by the number of spells they’ve cast. A form of it was also in the earliest playtest, where they could heal OR regain a spell, and my feedback for nearly a year has been ‘bring spell recovery back’, so i’m very pleased to see it!
And now the dislike/hate.
1. Its D&D
I know this looks a bit odd, given I praised D&D Next sticking to D&D’s nearly 40 year history but… It’s D&D, and thats it.
4e really pushed the boat out on revolutionary ideas, presenting balanced classes, where everybody had something cool they could do either every round, every fight, or every day. It streamlined the rules so you only had to worry about AC, HP and the three other defences. Next removes all those advances, and goes back to D&D’s roots, adds in more defences via saves, takes a sprinkle of becmi, a sprinkle of 2e, a sprinkle of ‘skills and powers’ era, a sprinkle of 3e, a sprinkle of 4e, and mashes them together into a game that can feel incomplete and at times ill thought out. It doesn’t innovate and instead rests on the laurels of that rich 40 year history to create a game that panders more to the Old School Renaissance crowd of gamers than the fresh blood the hobby needs.
I’ve been gaming for over 20 years, and amassed a collection of books from becmi, 2e, 3e and 4e. Given the limited amount of races, classes, backgrounds, feats, spells and adventures we have in Next at the moment, I could probably go back to the BECMI era Rules Cyclopedia, and have more material at my disposal in a rules system that feels the same, but is tried and tested…
But I don’t want to do that, I want D&D Next to be new, fresh, and modern, and I feel they are failing at this…
Remember I said up there that gamers love to roll more dice… Well, it doesn’t apply to disadvantage. As a mechanic having to roll twice and take the lowest sounds good, but in reality, you roll a dice, score a 20, a critical success… but then you roll your second, and get a 2… THAT IS NOT A FUN MECHANIC. And given some of the fundamental class features and rules like sneak attack require you to have disadvantage, it basically removes the desire to ever use that class feature, making the development time, and selection of that class or feature pointless.
3. Rolling For Stats
Years ago, if you’d have asked me what was a important aspect of D&D character generation, i’d have said it was rolling 3d6 to get your stats. (Personally, I like 4d6, drop lowest, reroll 1’s, do this 7 times, take the 6 highest…) but as I’ve got older, and DM’ed more and more sessions, I realise just how swingy and uneven rolling stats is. For a recent playtest session, I rolled 17,11,17,18,17,16 using D&D Next’s suggested 4d6 drop lowest method… I was +2 higher on most stats than everyone else in the group, and accordingly, a +1 to hp, ac, attacks, damage higher than everyone else. I was effectively the ultimate bad ass of a pc in the party. It shouldn’t be like that. Take 4e’s route instead, make arrays and point buy the default, and offer rolling as an alternative that groups can agree to use.
4. Bounded Accuracy
Bounded Accuracy… One of the supposed big selling points of D&D Next, where you advance at a slower more controlled rate, meaning lower level monsters remain a threat for longer, while allowing the use of one or two higher level monsters with slightly increased stats to provide a real challenge. Its meant to help the balance between classes, the balance between low and high level play… But in reality, it just creates a disparity between the classes, the monsters and pcs, and those who roll well. The fighter, barbarian, monk, and paladin are all equally good at fighting thanks to bounded accuracy, and basically only differ in class features. Bounded Accuracy doesn’t just affect attacks though, it affects AC, and creates another disparity, we’ve had games where a wizard had ac 10, and a paladin had ac 19. As a dm, I know which one i’ll attack… The slow advancement will make it feel like you don’t improve, and for playtesting where our group has rarely gone above level 4, we’ve yet to see any improvement in our attacks. I hate that.
Given the average attack bonus in our group at level one is +3, it also affects your ability to hit, something i’ll address in a moment…
5. Monster Stats
I’m including this, but I don’t know whether its caused by bounded accuracy or the fact that WotC just haven’t bothered to sort out the monster maths yet, but given killing monsters is a critical part of D&D, the fact that its not right is kinda a deal breaker for me. It’s quite common to come up against monsters with better AC, HP and attack bonuses than the pcs… At level 1…
I recently ran a game where the players we’re meant to be fighting AC 16, HP 11 foot soldiers, who had a +5 to hit, and dealt 1d6+1 damage. With AC 16, our pc’s with their measly +3 attack bonus thanks to Bounded Accuracy had to roll 13 or more to hit, i.e. 3 out of 5 times the pc’s are going to miss, and players HATE missing. But then the flipside is they have a +5 to attack, and will hit the mage with ac 10 3 out of 4 times, and their minimum damage will kill him in 3 hits, and their maximum damage will kill him in 1 hit.
Monster maths is so broken that I actually find playtesting stuff difficult because it’s hard to judge if the classes are underpowered or the monster overpowered.
6. PC Hit Dice
Hit dice are a classic part of D&D, I can’t deny that, but its a part of the history that I think should not be resurrected, kinda like THAC0. Even 20 years ago when I first started, I could see how swingy rolling to determine how much HP you gained per level was, and house ruled that you got your maximum hit dice result. Given Hit Dice now determine both your hp per level, and the hp you heal during rests, this swingy nature is even worse. Much like my comment about disadvantage, it isn’t fun having to roll and getting a shitty result like a 1 or a 2. My other issue with hit dice, is that they seem too big and no real distinction between classes, stuff that classically got a dice 2 or more steps smaller than a fighter, now has one step or the same.
7. Divine Healing
I’ve put divine healing, but realistically, I could just complain about healing in D&D Next in general, because it sucks, and even from that earliest packet, has been poorly designed. Taking away second wind was stupid, it meant players didn’t have to protect and rely on the healer, and going back to only having divine healing is such a massive step backwards from 4e.
Vancian magic should die.
I was tempted just to leave that as my only comment on this. Vancian magic didn’t make sense to me 20 years ago, and having tried to read the Dying Earth series and giving up because it was absolute drivel, I still don’t understand it anddon’t get why people hold Jack Vance’s idea that the magic words/gestures are so powerful and wiped from your memory is such a critical component of D&D. People complained about the lack of vancian magic in 4e, but realistically, thats all AEDU was, just disguised into a system that was easy to understand and even easier to use.
But vancian magic is not my only complaint about D&D Next’s spell casting… My actual biggest complaint is the complexity of how its presented. You can know, say… 1 spell, plus an extra amount from your stat bonus, plus some that you know because of your deity etc. Of those, say 4 spells, you can prepare 1 + your level plus you might always have some prepared because of your class/deity/tradition, then you might only be able to cast say 2 of them per day, but some spells might be cantrips to your because of your deity/tradition. Then theres the fact that some spells are swift actions, and some have ritual versions… It’s just all too complex.
Finally… theres the stupid method of rolling to hit. Some spells have attacks, some auto hit, some force the DM to roll against a static DC based on the spellcasters stats. Note that… THE DM ROLLS. We’ve ascertained that players like to roll dice. And the DM already has enough fucking stuff on his plate telling the story, tracking hp, ac, initiative, positions, describing stuff… So why in god’s name, have WotC decided to lump yet another thing on the DM and make him roll to see if the spell hits? In some ways I actual prefer the method WotC used in the earliest playtest where the spellcaster rolled to set a DC, and then the dm rolled to beat it. At least that was dynamic…
9. Development Time
The first public showing, to a select bunch of fans – Alphastream, NewbieDM, SarahDarkmagic etc was in December 2011. Thats 18 months ago. I’ve developed and released 10 pieces of software in the same time frame. Given that WotC will have been working on it internally for a year or so before hand, we are looking at 2 and a half years in which they still can’t figure out how the fighter or rogue should work, 2 and a half years in which to still not figure out how skills should work, 2 and a half years for monster maths still not to be calculated right. I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s taking too long, without enough progress been made on core aspects of the system.
10. Disappoint Undead
18 months of public testing, and still we’ve yet to see a decent version of Turn Undead. Some packets didn’t even give the cleric it by default… In our group its known by the more appropriate name of disappoint undead thanks to its inability to actually do anything useful. I can understand that its a hard one to balance – make it too powerful and the cleric becomes the go to class in an undead rich campaign, and it can totally ruin a dm’s planned encounter… But given every party will have to have a cleric because of the divine healing only aspect of D&D Next, I think they could balance this spell/power/ability better, and make it more useful.
11. The Wizard
The wizard is in my opinion the worst class in the current D&D Next playtest. Whereas other classes get new features per level, beyond new spells, and a few more uses of arcane recovery, the Wizard gets well and truly shafted as it goes up in levels. Couple this with the complexity of the spellcasting rules, and the Traditions, which compared to deities/oaths/moon phases/favoured enemies etc are woefully under described and under featured and put simply, boring, and you have a class that borders on being a total snore fest.
12. The Monk
Oh look, yet again the D&D monk is a martial arts master, whirling around the battlefield, almost impossible to hit despite only wearing robes, dealing stupid amounts of damage with their bare fists.
I come from Britain, home of the abbeys and monasteries, hell, theres 3 ancient abbey ruins within 30 minutes of my home. Monks to me are academic priests, with a vow or silence, and the ability to make kick ass beer and mead… Put that aside for a moment, and the martial arts master just doesn’t sit right with me in a medieval world of warriors, wizards, kingdoms and dragons. I don’t mind the Monk being an optional class introduced in a later book, but I hate the fact its a core class.
13. The Rogue
For 18 months the rogue has suffered an identity crisis. At times its being the skill monkey, at other times its basically just been the fighter with less armour and more damage. I wish they would just figure out what it is they want the rogue to do and make it do it, though I personally don’t know what I want the class to be. I know I hated the fact that in 4e, in order to best use sneak attack, you had to flank and thus the rogue became a frontline fighter, but maybe that kind of rogue needs to be an option?
14. The Fighter
I’ll be honest, when I had the chance to privately playtest the various options for the fighter, it drove me crazy. In one session, we had 3 different versions of it playing side by side, and none of them stood out as being the best. I actually had to step aside from playtesting for a while simply because I was fed up of seeing yet another new fighter concept.
The fighter as it stands is a good class, it is equal in power to its rivals – the monk, the barbarian and the paladin. Its only real strength comes in that its ability, the expertise dice, its gets 2 per encounter, rather than the usually 2 per day benefits of its rivals.
My issue with it though, is that it doesn’t scream out ‘fighter’, it doesn’t make me think of a peasant man at arms drafted into the militia, or of a mounted knight, or of a heroic dragon slayer. It’s just a little ‘meh’. It lacks a flavoursome choice like deity/oath (though past playtests have had some) and mechanically I feel like it should be THE BEST at fighting. Even if thats only an extra +1 attack bonus to the bounded accuracy and an extra +2 damage, I just always want it to be the best, and stand out as being the most well trained with weapons and armour.
15. Too Many Things
Your race gives you stuff – stats, abilities, languages proficiencies. Your sub race (if you have one) gives you stuff, stats, abilities. Your Class gives you stuff, stats, hit dice, hp, proficiencies, abilities, attack bonuses, class skills, equipment. Your sub class (deity/.oath/tradition) gives you stuff. Your background gives you stuff – skills, equipment and an ability. Your speciality gives you abilities. Even your equipment can give you stuff you have to keep track off. I actually reckon, that laid out like a 4e character sheet, you’d have more ‘powers’ on the cards. For a game thats meant to be streamlined and stripped down, its just too complex at level one.
16. Character Generation Sucks
I have to open pretty much every document when I build characters, char gen guide, how to play guid (because the stat bonuses aren’t listed in the char gen guide!), and I need to pick a race, class, spells, background, speciality, equipment… At least 4e had the character builder app eventually…