D&D Next Playtest Rules

Time Warp. Level 7 Magic-User Spell. Material components:

  • 1 bag of Cheetos™.
  • 6 bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola™ for that real sugar taste.
  • One set of soapy TSR dice. Alternately, razor-sharp GameScience™ dice (still my specialized weapon).
  • Pencils, lined paper, graph paper, hex paper.
  • Hawkwind’s “Space Ritual”.
  • One copy of D&D Next Playtest

    “Notwithstanding the foregoing, you may publicly discuss your thoughts regarding the D&D Next Playtest Materials and your playtesting experience.”

Mechanically, this looks a lot like a D20 retro-clone; a stripped-down D20 system. It’s not the miniatures wargame crossed with Magic the Gathering® card superpowers of pseudo-D&D 4E, at least. It’s a long way from being a completed game.

Skills There is no skill list! You use your ability scores for checks and saving throws, and some class/other features will give bonuses, but it’s not another damned shopping list. I guess they finally got over their GURPS envy. Exploration and the DM Guidelines have rules blocks with lists of DC targets, and classes that provide bonuses to these. But everyone can do almost any of the “thieves’ skills”, with the exception that only thieves can use actual lockpicks. Thieves are pretty close to totally irrelevant in this game, which makes me happier.

Advantages and disadvantages (anything a class/race is good/bad at) use a second die roll, and you keep the best or worst result; I’d have to see that in play or simulation to know how catastrophic a disadvantage is. It’s a unique solution to the problem, but I think a modifier of +4 or -4 (more? less?) would have been saner.

Hit Points are inflated: They start equal to your Con score plus one hit die. I think that’s too much for a game where a spear still does 1d6 damage. Hold still while I stab you with a spear, Mr Dwarf Fighter (20 HP), stab 5 stab 3 stab 2 stab 2 stab 1 stab 5 stab 3, so it took SEVEN successful stabs to get you unconscious. In the old days, it would take just two, maybe 3. Oh, quit bleeding on my carpet, you damned Dwarf.

Level is vastly deflated and deprecated. There’s no experience table beyond the 3 levels on the character sheets, and the XP awards listed in the Bestiary, so who knows what maximum level looks like. But tasks don’t use level, the game looks far more mortal than it’s been since OD&D where 9th level was a good retirement point.

Combat is vastly simplified. Surprise costs you -20 Initiative (they don’t say “for the first round”, so basically being surprised is a total clusterfuck). Initiative is rolled once at the start of a battle, but other than a single-serving ready action, you can’t change your order. On your turn, you get a move and one action and shut up, that’s it.

Critical hits are a natural 20 doing maximum damage, no second rolls and then faffing about with weapon type.

There’s no rules for wrestling or other unarmed combat. In the weapons chart, there’s damage for an unarmed strike (1d4), but no bolas, whips, nets. Is this an oversight or deliberate avoidance of a complex subject? The Strength Saving Throws section mentions grapples and bindings.

Equipment. Man, those ridiculous copper pieces are still there, but Electrum is back! Party like it’s 1974! Values of each coin in CP by edition:

Edition         CP      SP      EP      GP      PP
----------------------------------------------------
OD&D            1       5       25/100* 50      250
Holmes          1       5       25      50      250
Cyclopedia      1       10      50      100     500
AD&D 1st Ed     1       10      100     200     1000
D20             1       10      -       100     1000
D&D Next        1       10      50      100     1000
UK 1660-1971    1       12      -       240**   -
Harry Potter*** 1       17      -       493     -

* “If Electrum is added it is optionally worth either twice or half the value of Gold.”

** 1 Pound Sterling was worth 20 shillings, but actual gold coins varied radically as gold/silver exchange rates changed.

*** CP = Knut, SP = Sickle, GP = Galleon. Makes no less sense than anything else.

For a similar tale of inflationary confusion, see Roman currency.

Armor has better variety. Light armor adds Dex mod, medium armor adds half Dex mod, heavy armor adds no Dex mod. There’s 4 armors for each weight, plus light and heavy shields (+1 and +2 AC). There’s non-magical fantasy armor at the top of the price charts, so you still have something to spend loot on.

Weapons are most of the usual list divided into Basic, Finesse (can use Dex instead of Str), Martial, Heavy, Missile, and Complex Missile. But some classes still have arbitrary lists of allowed/proscribed weapons, such as the Wizard has “Daggers, slings, and quarterstaffs”, even though the Cleric has basic weapons including hammers, maces, handaxes, spears, etc. So no blunt weapon restriction? Still quite awkward and unlike any real (non-D&D-fanfic) fantasy literature.

Adventuring gear list is insanely long (4 pages in a 31-page booklet!), still has a 10′ pole, but no chalk for marking your way. Do you think anyone looks at these items anymore? Or is it cut-and-paste?

Encumbrance is still in pounds. Are we not past that yet? Hey, at least it’s not coin-weights anymore. I’m used to modern games which use “X items” capacity and common sense.

Magic The Wizard example can cast 3 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited cantrips (Detect Magic, Light, Magic Missile, Mage Hand, Ray of Frost, Shocking Grasp — no little non-combat cantrips? I miss Color, Fart, and Stinkeye (may not be actual cantrips)). The Cleric examples can cast 2 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited orisons (Detect Magic, Radiant Lance, Death Ward shown). I think this may be an overcorrection, but at least nobody will call a Wizard “fire and forget”. You still have to prepare specific spells, so your least popular spells will never be cast even if they’d be useful.

The spell list makes no real distinction between arcane and divine magic. Spells once again have verbal, somatic, and in some cases material components. It’s not clear if you have to gather sand for Sleep, but it is clear in cases like Continual Light’s 50 GP of ruby dust(!).

I’ll look at the Bestiary and Caves of Chaos tomorrow, then try an actual playtest when I can kidnap some players.

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Classes in D&D

D&D 5th Edition’s (#dndnext) classes seem to be varying between 4 and 50. I think there only need to be 3, just like in Original D&D, or Swords & Wizardry White Box.

Fighting Men: The Fighter fills every non-magical combatant role from heavy knight, to barbarian, to hunter, to thief. Which weapons and armor the Fighter uses determine what else they can do. A knight in full plate and a half-dozen heavy weapons needs a heavy mount to get around, and the expense of this implies either a feudal system with dozens or hundreds of peasants supporting the knight, or massive treasure hoards protected by dragons, that only a knight can extract. A barbarian’s few heavy weapons and medium armor make movement important, and probably sailing or riding to strike with surprise at undefended enemies. A thief uses light weapons and light or no armor to get maximum speed and stealth.

Magic-User: The essential traits of a wizard, from Merlin to Thoth Amon to Elric to Gandalf, are direct attack spells, and information gathering: Detects, identify items, ESP, clairvoyance, and languages and lore skills. I’m no fan of Vancian magic, but for D&D it’s traditional and mandatory. To make up for the very limited low-level spells per day, I use the cheap scroll-making system from original D&D (100 GP/level, 1 week/level), and gift starting Magic-Users with a few 1st level and maybe one 2nd level scrolls. An alternative solution is to have cantrips which can be performed for free; this makes Magic-Users more true to genre, and a weak attack cantrip (1d4 damage at most) or Harry Potter-ish Stupefy and Disarm charms keep them in the game. Magic-Users in myth and literature wear no armor, but often have weapons, especially swords.

Cleric: Clerics cover the range from pure spell-using priests to combatant paladins, Brother Cadfael to Roland. Holy men healing people is a common fantasy trope, all the way back to that weird “Bible” anthology some people take so seriously. Turning the undead makes Clerics useful even when their spells run out. Scrolls can fill out low-level healing abilities, as with Magic-Users. Clerics wearing heavy armor is unusual, but some paladins like Roland and Turpin did; the old “blunt weapons” restriction only makes sense for one segment of priests of one religion at one point in history, and should be discarded.

Not Included: Thieves are just very weak Fighting Men, they do nothing special, if you have even the simplest skill system or stat checks. Rangers are just Fighting Men with bows. Paladins are just Clerics who fight more than cast. Cavaliers are Fighting Men with horses. Assassins are just Fighting Men; killing people is what Fighting Men do. Druids are just neutral Clerics.

My thoughts on races may be seen even more radical, but that’s because they are based on history and mythology, not the incestuous Tolkien-D&D-novelization-pseudofantasy cycle that ends in Salvatore’s “Good Drow” bullshit books.

Dwarfs: In Norse mythology, Dwarfs were maggots in the body of Yggdrasil, and only mentioned being powerful Fighting Men or having dark magical power. Wagner’s Ring Cycle reinforces these roles. Tolkien’s adaptation is peculiar for having no practical magic, but their role as heavy fighters was set. I’d prefer if they could only be Fighting Men, but wizened Dwarf Magic-Users like Alberich are appropriate. Is it too late to dump the anti-magic nonsense?

Elves: In Norse mythology, the Alfar are either of light or darkness, and do healing or cursing magic depending. In Celtic mythology, the Elves do mostly illusions and sometimes healing magic. In Tolkien, Elves do healing magic, there are no Elven battle mages, that’s what they use bows for. So I’d prefer if they could be Fighting Men or Clerics, and not Magic-Users. Certainly I see no precedent for the multi-classing element.

Other Non-Humans: Genocide. Hobbits, er, “Halflings”, are vermin, an abomination to be wiped from gaming. Gnomes are annoying, best used as nuisances by the DM. Half-breeds aren’t as good or interesting as their full-blood parents. Orcs, Ogres, Goblins, Lizard-Men, etc. don’t fit well in a Human-centric campaign, which most fantasy literature reflects. These could well be statted up in the Monster Manual so the DM can allow them in unusual campaigns, but in the main book, only Humans, Dwarfs, and Elves have any legitimacy.