D&D Next Playtest – Progress!

I took part in the Friends and Family playtest for D&D Next, and I was very pleased to see that many of my concerns from that version have been addressed in the public playtest that was released yesterday!

My positive reactions and continuing concerns, both the trivial nitpicks and more troubling issues, are listed below:

Nice Features:

  • Cantrips: Thank god clerics and wizard have at-will cantrips they can cast in battles. For the most part, these were not present in the previous playtest and it was a serious problem. If you can only cast 2-3 spells in a day then there are going to be several rounds and even whole fights where you can’t contribute meaningfully. At-wills like Shocking grasp, radiant lance, magic missile, and ray of frost give both clerics and wizards meaningful options in combat when they are not able or willing to let loose one of their precious daily-use spells.
  • Constitution and Hit Points: I am glad to see that Con doesn’t add directly to hit points every level anymore. It seems like Con is still a useful stat now, but I won’t feel like a total fool for not making it my secondary stat, which was a serious gripe I had with previous editions and the last version of the playtest.
  • Mundane Healing: Spending hit dice out of combat and adding your Con modifier is a great way to handle mundane healing out of combat. It helps soften the blow if you don’t have a cleric and gives a great alternate use for Constitution. There will be obvious comparisons to the healing surge mechanic, but this feels like a more limited resource and one that is less coldly tied to other forms of healing (such as a cleric healing spell), which was my main gripe with healing surges, that once you were out of them, basically all your options for healing were out of window.
  • Themes: Tentatively themes seem pretty cool. They all seem to give solid powerful effects. My only concern would be that when we see the full list of themes, a small number will tend to dominate over potentially more interesting but notably less powerful themes since they do have obvious and powerful game mechanic effects.
  • Backgrounds: I like that backgrounds feel pretty separate from the combat area of the game. I want to be able to play a commoner without feeling like an idiot. At the same time, they give skill bonuses and other effects, so they have a noticeable impact on the game, just not one that pertains very much to combat.
  • Spells: I am not a big fan of vancian magic, but all in all, these spells seem much more balanced than their counterparts in 3.5. I am not 100% sold on hit point requirements for spell effects, since I don’t like the weird annoyance that comes when guessing how effective your spell will be. This could, of course, be easily addressed by a magical trinket that allows the wizard or cleric to determine if their spell would be fully effective or not. I DO like the mechanic of a spell being limited in power when an enemy is at full health or is higher level. It allows for fun teamwork, for example, where the fighter hacks an ogre down to below 4o hit points so the wizard can cast Hold Person and allow the rogue to finish it off with sneak attack without taking damage from future attacks.
  • Flatter Attack, Defense, and Skill Curve: One of the things from this playtest and the previous version that I really love is flattening out the generic power curve as you level. In 4e, you get a +1 to attack, defense, and all skills every other level, which means that a monster more than 5 levels above or below your level is a completely inappropriate challenge, even when encountered alone or in big groups. 3.5 also had similar problems with attacks and skill points. Earlier editions had the problem with attack progression. In 4e, the  weirdness is most keenly felt in skills, where most skill checks rise in difficulty as you level, making it unclear why you are getting bonuses to the skills in the first place. Those DCs that don’t increase quickly become trivial for even the most unskilled. Flattening everything out by not giving these routine bonuses makes monsters stay challenging for longer and makes skills feel more objective. Generally, it makes things feel more rooted in reality if I can point to reasons I am better at something (I picked up a new skill or my Strength went up) rather than just getting a generic increase to all my stats.


  • The Rogue: The poor rogue. In 4e, he was pretty awesome, with an obvious and effective role. In the PHB1, if it weren’t for the Ranger stealing the spotlight, the Rogue would have been the most fun class to play, with awesome and effective attacks when it could get combat advantage (which it could accomplish every round with a little planning). In the public playtest (and the previous version), it’s just noticeably lacking when it comes to combat. The rogue in this playtest looks okay when you first glance at it. Hide in the shadows to avoid detection. Spring out and attack with much improved combat advantage (two attack rolls and keep the highest!) and dole out some nice sneak attack damage. The problem is that, with the current rules, you can only do that once every other round! Hiding takes an action; it is not part of movement, and there is no other easy way to get combat advantage. So the level 1 halfling rogue, if everything goes well, alternates between hiding in one round, and getting an attack at +5 with combat advantage (roll twice, take highest result) for 2d6+3 damage (10 on average) in the next round. The dwarf fighter, in contrast, attacks at +6 for 2d6+7 damage (14 on average, though it is possible that some mistakes were made when calculating fighter damage) EVERY ROUND. And if they miss, they still do 3 damage from reaper! That’s embarrassing. So essentially the rogue is dishing out considerably less than HALF the damage the fighter can do in combat! Obviously, a rogue could make up for this a bit by not hiding every other round, but that seems to ignore most of their cool abilities. A quick solution I would propose is to gives rogue’s a special ability that lets them make a roll to hide as part of their movement. Thus, if they roll well to hide and position themselves carefully they can do solid sneak attacks every round, which would bring them about up to the power level of the fighter in combat (or close enough), while affording them their own kind of survivability.
  • Rolling for Hit Points: Gah, I really hate rolling for hit points. It means that my character can go from being pretty powerful to extremely fragile (or unusually tough) in the course of one or two levels. Now, I would normally deal with by just giving everyone half their hit die when they level. I did that for 3.5. However, there is a rule that says you get your con modifier at minimum when you roll for hit points. Weird! I guess if this rule stays in, I will likely suck it up and ignore it. If it makes Con slightly less attractive, well I can deal with that. While we are on the subject as Con as a minimum for hit point rolls, that’s kind of a weird rule! If anything, it makes Con MORE attractive for the wizard and rogue who can significantly boost their average rolls with a high Con and LESS attractive for fighters or clerics who are less likely to roll 1st, 2s, and 3s on their hit dice rolls when they level. Generally, I’d advocate ditching the minimum Con for hit points rule and presenting rolling for hit points as an optional rule.

25 Responses to “D&D Next Playtest – Progress!”

  1. Edward says:

    excellent article. Look forward to reading more.

  2. Sounds like, from the perspective of a power gamer, it’s got a lot going for it. Not sure I agree from my own perspective that the things you list are positives.

  3. Runeslinger says:

    I am surprised that the ‘rogue’ having a lesser damage capacity than the ‘fighter’ would be listed as a concern, or that turning them into The Shadow would be offered as a potential solution. The game has always embraced some bizarre limitations on what was and was not permissible (not all of which were bizarre after context was provided, of course) but non-fighters being less capable as fighters than professionals would not really qualify as one of them, would it? This sort of class difference, which some took as a test of skill when I was starting out, enhanced the game. Overcoming a difficulty, such as being on the losing end of a hit points or attributes roll, with skill and wit allowed for some real thrill and bragging rights… it was a feature, not a concern.

    Anyway, my intent is not to criticise, just to express surprise.

  4. paul says:

    No one would deny that a fighter should outfight a thief/rogue in single combat, but, ever since the Greyhawk supplement, a thief’s backstab has out-damaged a fighter’s regular attack.

    In Greyhawk, a backstabbing thief did 2x or more damage. And both Greyhawk and 1e thieves can backstab with swords, doing 2d6 or 2d8 damage. This is more than the fighter’s regular attack.

    I agree with Rory that it’s weird that a 5e rogue, striking from behind, does less damage than the fighter’s regular attack. As far as I know, 5e is the first edition where this is the case.

    I think Rory’s concern is 100% valid. I’m playtesting the 5e rogue, and I’m simultaneously playing a thief in Mike Mornard’s regular OD&D game. Relatively speaking, the 5e rogue feels weaker than the 0e thief.

  5. Rory Rory says:

    Runeslinger: I do think it is a serious problem when one class seriously underperforms compared to all the other classes in an important area of the game, such as combat. This currently appears to be the case with the rogue. I would not expect the rogue to be toe to toe versus the fighter when it comes to hit points and defenses, but if the rogue were to excel at one area I would imagine it to be general skulkiness and the all powerful backstab. Frankly, due to its poor damage and it’s need to spend a entire action hiding with little to show for it, I would say it currently fails on both counts. I am all for rewarding clever ideas and unconventional wisdom, but I don’t think you need to play an underpowered class to do that :).

    Greyhawk, in general I would say the game actually has a much more old school feel to it than previous editions of dnd. Personally, I care far less about power gaming than about creating a fun balanced game, which is most of what I highlighted in this article.

  6. It seemed to me like all of your praise was heaped on those things that gave mechanical bonuses, particularly in combat:

    “at-will cantrips they can cast in battles” (because battles are the most important part of the game, and not being able to cast spells means you just sit on your thumb)

    “If you can only cast 2-3 spells in a day then there are going to be several rounds and even whole fights where you can’t contribute meaningfully” (because there’s no way to “contribute meaningfully” to a battle without doling out oodles of h.p. in damage)

    “I won’t feel like a total fool for not making it my secondary stat” (anyone who doesn’t min-max their scores is a “total fool”)

    “my main gripe with healing surges, that once you were out of them, basically all your options for healing were out of window” (because no one would ever think of taking a cure light wounds spell, or have a potion of extra healing)

    “They [themes] all seem to give solid powerful effects” (Because the value of something is measured in terms of effects, not role-playing opportunities)

    “I want to be able to play a commoner without feeling like an idiot” (anyone who would want to play a commoner without some sort of in-game mechanical benefit for doing so is “an idiot”, but it’s okay in 5E because they *do* give benefits, even if they’re not too useful in combat)

    “I don’t like the weird annoyance that comes when guessing how effective your spell will be” (Because randomness interferes with maximizing one’s spell selection and use in… you guessed it… combat)

    “if it weren’t for the Ranger stealing the spotlight, the Rogue would have been the most fun class to play, with awesome and effective attacks when it could get combat advantage” (Right there– “awesome and effective attacks” make something “the most fun class to play”; role-playing opportunities? Feh.)

    So yeah, I’m going to stick by my assessment that you’re coming from a min-maxing, power gaming POV, even if you might not realize it (or are just being coy). Your comments, as written, seem to define fun in the game as having cool powers and dealing lots of damage in combat, and anyone who would choose to not take options that maximized those potentials is a moron. Maybe that’s not what you intended, but that’s how it came across to me. I think the text backs me up.

    That said, I happen to think that 5E is looking pretty good, but for a bunch of reasons that, obviously, are very different from yours.

  7. Markis Melarkis says:

    It looks like this is only a concern at 1st level, at least as much as I understand it. At 2nd level, the rogue does 3d6+3 vs the fighter’s 2d6+7, and at 3rd the rogue gets 4d6+3 vs the fighter’s 2d6+8. Plus it looks like the rogue is going to hit more often when he does attack with advantage, making a sneak attack every round a little on the hot side.

    Maybe the maths aren’t there enough to make a difference, I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, so I don’t know if it plays differently at just a couple levels higher…

  8. paul paul says:

    What’s going on here, greyhawk? I read all of Rory’s criticisms as leveled at THE RULES and I read all of your criticisms as leveled at RORY. Don’t do that.

  9. Runeslinger says:

    Rory: Fair enough. I understand how if a specific ability of a specific class is downgraded it can cause concern or disappointment. I didn’t think of it in those terms. Like Greyhawk Grognard, I was thinking that we differ in how integral combat and combat effectiveness is to an RPG. From my perspective, a person chooses a class because they want to portray that occupation in the context of the campaign. If they get nuked for engaging in activities outside their skill set, then they have no one to blame but themselves.

  10. Rory Rory says:

    Greyhawk, it is hard to imagine talking about anything other than mechanics when talking about a roleplaying system; what else is a roleplaying system but a system of rules for running a game? It’s the player and DM who brings the other elements (roleplaying, fun voices, story, etc.) to the table, for the most part.

    I obviously like stats and cool powers, but I also care a lot about having the freedom to play the character I want to play from a flavor and roleplaying perspective, which incidentally is why a balanced system is so important to me! So I think it is a serious problem if a system severely penalizes my choice to play a commoner for example (by making me ineffective in combat or giving me skills that tend to rarely come up during the game) or doesn’t give me enough leeway to choose my attributes by making me extremely likely to die if I don’t choose Con. If ALL I cared about were making a badass character, why would I even care if a commoner is mechanically useful compared to other backgrounds; if none of them help in combat, who cares?

    Ultimately, when I play dnd I spend about half my time doing combat and about half my time exploring and roleplaying, so I want the system to support interesting characters that work in both avenues of the game. I would LOVE it if someone could choose to play a character for purely roleplaying reasons and then find out that the character is fun and balanced in and out of combat because of the way the system was designed.

  11. Rory Rory says:

    Greyhawk, one quick response with regards to healing: in 4e almost all healing effects, including potions, required spending a healing surge, which meant you really WERE out of options when your healing surges ran out. Hence, why I prefer the dnd next system.

  12. Runeslinger says:

    Rory: That clears everything up, I think. Thanks for the considered response to what may have seemed to be personal challenges.

  13. Jan says:

    Giving the rogue hiding within a move action sounds weired to me. So you would just keep running around your allies. Hide behind on, jump out to attack, run back to hide, jump out again. And if the one to hide behind s the fighter, you can move behind him, attack and move again behind him so you are hidden again? No. Why not just change the sneak attack ability in a way that partly reintroduces flanking? If an ally stands on the opposite side of your enemy, you can do sneak attack damage. You don’t get advantage for that, because it would be too powerful.

    By the way, you didn’t calculate the advantage in when comparing rogue and fighter damage. Advantage means the rogue will hit almost every single time, whereas the fighter wont hit that often. But it won’t even the odds.

  14. Paul: Not at all. Rory made a claim that his comments were not coming from a power gamer perspective. I quoted him to support my assertion to the contrary. That’s called a conversation, not a criticism. I think understanding one’s perspective when assessing the rules is essential.

    BTW– I’ve got both the Random Dungeon Generator and Illustrated Wandering Monster Tables on the wall of my office, right next to the Darlene Greyhawk maps. Wonderful stuff.

    Rory: Not being a 4E player, I wasn’t aware of that regarding healing. Can’t drink a potion because you’ve already used a power? Yikes.

    And I wasn’t (hopefully) saying that one shouldn’t discuss mechanics. But sometimes mechanics are used not just to further the player characters’ ability to spread bits of monster around the dungeon; they affect exploration, interaction with others, etc.

    And sometimes the best ones are actually limitations that require the player to choose carefully whether the benefits outweigh the limitations (such as playing a demihuman in 0E/1E, where there are level limits, or choosing to use a two-handed sword in Adventures Dark and Deep, which gives you a big initiative penalty). I’m hoping the 5E mechanics aren’t all geared towards, or measured by, their ability to spread monster pâté all over a dungeon.

  15. Philo Pharynx says:

    @Greyhawk Grognard,

    I don’t see Rory as being a min-maxer. He just doesn’t like the gritty high-lethality low-power player-focused type of game that many OSR fans do. While he is concerned with the mechanics, he’s not obsessed with it like a true min-maxer. Still, if both he and you can find good things about 5e, then they are probably moving in the right direction.

    The idea that most healing used healing surges in 4e does have some thought behind it. It may not be to your taste, but it is logical. In-game: There is only so much a person can do to recover health/vitality/luck. After a long day where you’ve faced a lot of threats and used a lot of healing (magic and otherwise), there’s nothing more available until you rest. The magic goes off, but your body just doesn’t have the resources to use it. Metagame: Since healing magic isn’t capped per day, they had to put in some sort of cap to ensure that there was some limit. Items are included with it to avoid the 3e problem of a party with a bunch of healing wands not having a limit to how much they can heal.

    I don’t think that all mechanics should be dealing with combat. But the ones that deal with combat should be balanced. Combat is a significant part of the game and one of the most dramatic. I like to see everybody able to participate in it. I know that not everybody agrees with this. But since balance is hard to achieve, the base rules need to consider it in their design.

  16. DGibb says:

    I have been part of the playtest as a DM and as a player, and I have some thing to say that might make the Greyhawk Grognard happy.

    The character sheets that we have been presented encourage actions other than rolling dice in the coolest way. The theme gives my character a foothold in the world other than Wizard Who Casts Spells. My theme is Magic User. That means I have studied long and hard for the ability to harness the arcane weave and twist it to reach my goals. My background is Sage. That gives me some skill bonuses, yes, but also tells me that I am adept at research and can inject this bookish personality into my roleplaying.

    The fact that at level 1 I have more than one spell available to me is a bonus; back in the day when I played earlier editions I used a dagger — poorly — after casting my spell and hiding from the enemies until I could sleep. The descriptions of the spells aren’t cut and dry like a tactical wargame that 4e excelled at. It offered roleplaying options. I could cast Grease on some chains and the orcs climbing up them would slide down. I could cast Grease in a hallway that my companions could light with his torch. I could cast it on my ally’s bindings that will allow him to wriggle free more easily.

    There are definitely opportunities, even with the limited information we have for this edition, a solid sense of character and foundation within the world other than “I have a +6 to hit, deal 2d6+7 dmg and an AC of 15.” I am more than just a number.

    Then again, I cut my teeth on AD&D 1e and really enjoy all editions. Maybe I just see the best in the material presented.

  17. DGibb: Please don’t mistake my comments for my not being enthused about DnDNext. I am. But my reasons for liking it are more than a tad different than Rory’s. Perhaps the fact that we can both like it for radically different reasons speaks well of it and the stated goal of appealing to gamers of various styles and predilections.

  18. Rory Rory says:

    As I don’t know your reasons for liking D&D Next, Greyhawk, I can’t speak as to whether our reasons for liking it are radically different or not :).

  19. Rory Rory says:

    Markis, you may be right. At higher levels, sneak attack might balance out to give the rogue enough of an edge in combat that the “hide one round and sneak attack next round” strategy works out; it is worth noting that at level 3, the fighter still does a ton more damage over two rounds.

    Jan, I could definitely see some version of flanking working out, though it is more fun to hide in shadows :). I could also see limiting the free hide to once a round and requiring the rogue not to use the same hiding place they started the round in, or something silly like that.

    Yeah, advantage definitely gives a BIG bonus to hit, just not enough to make up for the decrease in damage over two rounds.

  20. Molbork says:

    On the topic of how hit points are assigned each level and the CON modifier.

    I’m a big fan of the advantage/disadvantage mechanic and was thinking maybe your CON modifier can add extra dice.

    +X mod gives you (one + X) hit dice rolls take the highest(or the one you want I guess)

    -X mod gives you (one + X) hit dice rolls and you have to keep the lowest.

    Ya people would probably still want CON as a secondary stat, but +1 mod would probably be enough I think.

  21. John says:


    it is interesting to hear your thoughts as they are very different to mine. It feels like a lot of the time in recent years when people are talking about balance they are just talking about balance in combat. You specifically mention Magic Users being able to cast damaging spells at will and the rogue somehow being able to surprise creatures he is in combat with every second round. This is only someing you care about if your game is entirely about combat.

    My view is that combat should only be one part of the game. The fighters should be the best in combat because it is what they do. He should pat the mage and thief on the shoulders and say “That’s ok guys, I’ll take it from here.” The Magic User’s strength comes in the range of magical abilities they have, so they can teleport or fly or turn invisible or read someone’s mind. The Thief can sneak and pick pockets and climb in shadows. So the balance comes in giving them all something they can do at some time during the entire game session.

    So a session might go something like:
    they are off to kill the high priest. They come to a bridge guarded by his minions. The Thief sees a window across the moat and swims across it, climbs up the sheer wall, moves silently and backstabs the occupant of the room, then ties a rope so the Mage and Fighter can climb across. The Mage then casts ESP on himself and Invisibility on them all and they start moving through the caves. They encounter another group of minions and the Mage reads their minds and finds where the high priest is. They then find the high priest who the Fighter then has a toe to toe fight with, helped by the others, until they defeat him. Every class does something, each being most effective in their area of expertise; the Thief at sneaking, the Mage at casting spells and the Fighter at fighting.

    It will be interesting to see how Wizards goes trying to satisfy both play styles.



  22. Rory Rory says:

    Hi John,

    In contrast to your view, I’d prefer a game where every class is balanced in each of the common spheres of play: exploration, social encounters, and combat. So instead of a rogue being more powerful in, say, exploration, and less powerful in combat, I’d like to see a rogue effective in all three spheres. Effectively, you would see how a rogue handles things differently than the fighter in each different area of play or how they work together to combine their abilities most effectively.

    To piggyback on your example session, maybe while they are searching for the high priest they encounter a door that the thief is unable to open (it is jammed shut). Smiling, the fighter smashes it open, allowing the party to continue on without seeking an alternate route. Perhaps they got the map to high priest’s lair in the first place when the fighter strong armed a local cultist (and the rogue told a clever bluff to convince the cultist to let them inside his home). And, of course, when combat begins, everyone has their moment to shine, the fighter as he stands toe to toe with the high priest, battering him with numerous blows, the wizard as he locks down the high priest with hold person, and the thief as he delivers the crucial backstab to end the fight (to borrow my previous example).

    I’d prefer balancing each character in each sphere of play for a few reasons:
    -It makes for more well rounded characters. I’d like to believe my fighter has more to offer than simply bashing enemies skulls in :).
    -It accommodates multiple styles of play. If a particular session goes by without any combat or without much exploration, I don’t want a character sitting at the sidelines feeling left out.
    -It’s easier. From a design perspective, you are more likely to make a mistake balancing parts of the game that are very different from each other than making sure each class has something to offer in each area of the game. Considering how hard it is already to make a fun and balanced rpg, I don’t want to make their job more difficult.

  23. camazotz says:

    Great article! I am envious that you are in the friends and family playtest. I’m really enjoying the public playtest right now, I love what DDN is doing. Interesting point about the thief’s sneak attack that I hadn’t considered, and I like your idea that stealth should be incorporated for rogues as a move action, which makes sense when you think about it.

    On hit points, I’ve always liked random rolling because variety is the spice of life, but at the same time I hate seeing people get hosed with a low score. I’ve used a house rule for the last 23 years now that lets players roll hit dice and if they don’t like the first roll they can re-roll (But must stick with the second roll). This usually avoids 1s and 2s on hit dice.

  24. paul says:

    Balance is one of the big arguments about D&D that’s been going on for a while. Here are three definitions of balance:

    1) There are people who want characters to be reasonably balanced in each *scene*: everyone can participate in combat, everyone can participate in exploration, etc. This was the design principle behind 4e. I know a lot of people don’t like this style. That’s fine. Personally, though, I like it.

    2) There are people who want characters to be reasonably balanced in each *adventure*: the fighter is better at a combat scene, but the thief is better at an exploration scene. Older editions are more like this, but it’s not black and white: a thief still contributes in OD&D combat, and a fighter can still jiggle with levers and find pits with a 10′ pole. Personally, I like this style of play just fine.

    3) There are people who want characters to be reasonably balanced over their *career*: thus, a fighter is more powerful at level 1, and a wizard is more powerful at level 20. Personally, I don’t like to play in such a game.

    Here are some things which are NOT true:
    -People who like style 1 are always min/maxers who only care about combat.
    -People who like style 2 are always hidebound traditionalists ruled by nostalgia.
    -People who like style 3 are always egomaniacs who just want to play game-breaking wizards.

    If you find yourself about to make any of these claims, please think again.

    So, do you think it’s possible for 5e to make fans of all three styles happy? How would it work?

  25. Philo Pharynx says:

    @Paul, Well said! Demihuman level limits are another example of “type 3 balance”. From the design comments I don’t think they are going to focus on type 3, and they are shooting for something with elements of type 1 and type 2. I like 4e, but I do admit that 4e does emphasize combat a bit too much. On the other hand, I think a lot of old-school games don’t put enough emphasis on combat.

    @John, I think having cantrips helps spellcasters to be better at exploration. Unless the specific DM de-emphasizes combat a lot, then wizards need to help in combat. I know some players that agonize over spending spell slots that don’t help in combat. But if they always have a useful option, those players will have more freedom to choose non-combat options.

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