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:
- 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.