The next round of D&D Next playtest materials for public playtesters like me has dropped. I wanted to jot off a few thoughts as I skim through the files - it'll be another couple of weeks before my gaming group can actually meet to play with any of this. They made a lot of changes, and they were kind enough to sum up the changes in a single document within the playtest. I hope this stays on the sunny side of my fulmination rule.
First off, I know it's an unreasonable thing to ask, but I do wish they had released another adventure to go with this packet. The Caves of Chaos are a bit - a lot, actually - too old-school for my gaming group. Whatever the OSR folks say about the evils of having a narrative, there is a silent majority that feels quite otherwise. To give D&D Next a fair shake, when I do run this, I'll be operating off of my own material.
So, first-level hit points have changed back to 3e-style single-hit-die + Con modifier. This makes me sad, because we're firmly back into the territory where first-level characters are dropping in a single hit. Given the way sleep has been changed (no saving throw; starting with the creature with the lowest hit points, it keeps going until it hits a random hit point limit), hit points are carrying too much of the load of a character's resilience. I think D&D has always had a tough time accepting that sleep is an incredibly powerful, instant-kill kind of thing to do - in the LARPs that I play, sleep effects are typically either modestly challenging to apply (blade poisons have their limitations) or expensive to cast (typically one of the higher-level spells and subject to both magic and mental resistances).
I understand that the designers wanted to lower hit points overall "as a way to make healing more effective." I think this was wrongheaded from the start; the only way this change affects play for healers is that they will more often need to sacrifice their turn to cast the more reliable healing effect (cure light wounds or better) since healing word has little chance of fully healing a badly wounded wizard, much less any other class. I like healing word just fine for not taking up the cleric's turn, but I'm not sure it's worth the spell slot it costs until third level, and then only with the Healer specialty.
On which note, I am kind of stunned at how different the game's power level will be in comparing a party whose cleric has the Healer specialty and a party whose cleric does something else with his time. I am really very uncomfortable with how this is playing out, because I believe that the player community will come to feel that the cleric who makes any other choice is "just being selfish," when the whole problem with the cleric class in 3.x and earlier editions is that the cleric was required to be selfless in order for anyone else to have fun. The issue here is that a mechanic that everyone needs in order to keep playing their characters is locked to one class/role. Don't kid yourself - Hit Dice and out-of-combat healing aren't going to be enough, and if you want to rely on healing potions for all of your healing, that's cool, but the base unit of value in the economy quickly becomes the 50-gp healing potion. (Which means that the Healer specialty is once again the Only Correct Choice.)
While we're on spells, let's talk about Cause Fear real fast. It's a "save or you're out of the fight" spell. Sure, that's less bad than "save or die," technically. It can crowd-control as many creatures as you want (assuming a failed save) for 1 minute, until they take damage. A bit much for a first-level spell; I'll have to hope that this spell is revisited along with the game's entire approach to status effects. The second-level spell hold person paralyzes targets with fewer than 50 hit points on a failed save. So we're talking about characters of third level and above being able to paralyze every humanoid currently in the Bestiary. What I'm saying here is that that hit point limit is almost pointlessly high, unless the target is an elite humanoid of seventh level or higher. I get that they believe in this hit point threshold mechanic, but it would mean a lot more if there were actually creatures that it stopped the spell from affecting - otherwise it's like it's not there at all.
Interestingly, the inflict line of spells are super hoss. I'm not yet sure how I feel about this, but it might be okay. There's an attack roll (half damage on a miss), and then something probably dies. The average damage of inflict moderate wounds, for example, kills a regular opponent of fifth level, maybe sixth or better, straight out, or cripples that character on a miss.
I'm really not sure why they bothered with the hit point cap (which totally ignores a character's current hit point total) on bane. It's a -1 to hit for a group of opponents. I get that they're going for bounded accuracy and all, but I'm pretty sure no one will bother with this spell when there are other options on the table. The other thing about making spell thresholds respect hit point maximums rather than current hit points is that it asks the players to do even more guesswork about how tough the opponent is, and these effects (bane, suggestion, turn undead...) do absolutely nothing if the opponent has more than the threshold. This is exactly not how the threshold mechanic was originally presented, and loses the strengths of that option. Charm person and command offer another iteration: they offer a saving throw only to those with more than the threshold, and automatically succeed against those below the threshold.
Next up, Specialties. Dual-wielding and Sniper. The function of these specialties is to make two attacks in a round. Their plan for how to keep this balanced is to make each of these attacks do half damage. This seems to say that Sneak Attack or Expertise dice used on this attack are also halved. The apparent point of these abilities is to mow through the lowest-level creatures faster, because you're wasting less damage against them. Based on the hit point scaling that we can see right now, this will stop being useful somewhere around fourth or fifth level. By comparison, the first-level abilities of most specialties remain useful. It's possible that they intend for higher-level benefits of these specialties to make up for it, but I can't recommend that design scheme.
Next up: Combat Superiority and the fighter class. I like the concept of combat superiority a lot, as I've discussed here. I'm very dubious of abilities like Glancing Blow and Jab that replace weapon damage for an attack with an expertise die. On some level it bothers me that a fighter with a dagger who is doing something else with his round, but works in a jab at an opponent, does more damage with a dagger (though without a Strength modifier to damage, admittedly) than a fighter who attacks normally but uses his CS dice for something other than a Deadly Strike. If this were the final published material, I would just plan to take the core ideas and rework them into something more in line with my tastes, because the core idea of CS is good, but the implementation bothers me.
Sneak Attack? Sure, we can talk about Sneak Attack. Sneak Attack starts twice as good and scales twice as fast as a rogue's Sneak Attack dice in 3.x, but can only be applied once per round. Of course, all the rogue needs to do to deal Sneak Attack damage is to stand adjacent to an opponent threatened by any of the rogue's allies, because without a map, there's no way to require a flanking position. Sneak Attack damage now applies to all kinds of opponents. I would prefer to see the scaling on this slowed way, way down. To make sure that rogues-dealing-SA are still dealing more damage than a fighter using Deadly Strike, I'd slow down the progression of CS dice as well.
This points to one of the major things I notice about the rules so far. The characters start out extremely weak, but they scale upward quite sharply in everything except resistance to harm. Monsters start off quite weak and scale upward quite slowly in everything including resistance to harm, unless they're elites or better. At the moment, this is looking like a "mow down zillions of bad guys" balance axiom. That's not a problem, per se, except that individual bad guys can't really be all that impressive. Other than the troll (because of regeneration), the toughest bad guys in the bestiary won't stand up to more than about two successful Sneak Attack strikes. I would definitely prefer to see bad guys given a bit more staying power, just so they get a chance to use a special ability or two before they die. I understand that this was different at other tables, but I don't recall "bad guys stay alive too long" as one of our problems in 4e for anything except some solo encounters. (Solo encounters need more of the DM's effort in order to be fun, if they are actually solo.) This is a case where I am not convinced the game will be an enjoyable challenge unless there are so many bad guys as to be unmanageable to run.
As was true in 3.x and 4e, I feel that the "alchemical" items (acid and alchemist's fire) that PCs can use as attacks aren't impressive enough for the 25 and 50 gp that they cost, respectively. I'd like to see these become credible weapons rather than expensive ways to do almost no damage.
Equipment as a broader whole. Well, there's a weapon that's worse than an unarmed attack. I'm not sure why this even made it on the list of options, except to punish a player for making it part of their description of an attack. The armor chart is much closer to making sense, but there are so few levers for them to manipulate that there's still some weirdness. Normally I am not a proponent of the common argument that heavy armor should grant DR, because DR has, in previous editions, been obscenely powerful. I think that their problem, though, is that the only lever they're using to make heavy armor more appealing than medium armor is a higher AC, and they need to create a new lever. Conveniently enough, I'm prepared to suggest it right now: damage disadvantage. The game already has a concept of advantage and disadvantage as "reroll and take better/worse (respectively) of the rolls." Maybe the value of heavy armor is that (a certain number of times per day or per encounter) the defender can decide that an incoming attack has damage disadvantage. This involves enough dice-rolling that it shouldn't be always-on, but I think it would be a tempting choice some of the time, in exchange for a speed penalty and skill disadvantage for stealth. If this is too intensive on dice rolls, they've also introduced a mechanic in which damage from an effect is minimized; presumably this means that all die rolls are set to 1, and other modifiers apply normally. (I wonder what happens on a crit, where all variables are maximized?)
I do rather like the several new options for hit point recovery during a long rest. These have a lot in common with some versions of healing surge recovery that I worked out for 4e, and I generally like the idea anyway. Some may be more punitive than I care to be, so I like having more than one setting.
I feel bad for the cleric as the only class that doesn't improve at all in attack bonus, with weapons or spells, in the first five levels. I would rather see them scale in attacks at least as well as the rogue. While we're on that topic, I'd like to see the rogue's absolute dominance over the whole field of skills to edge off a little. Rogues start off being able to take 10 on all skill checks, and that scales up at fifth level and presumably again thereafter. If the ability is going to scale, I think it should start at 8 or so; I would point out that Skill Mastery was a high-level rogue ability in 3.x, and was worth buying even in comparison to other abilities of around its level. I think it's funny that they went out of their way to compensate for the fact that trapfinding is expected of rogues and is based off Wisdom, but rogues are expected to use Wisdom as a dump stat (which is kinda weird to me in itself, but was certainly true in some of the very early editions of D&D).
To wrap this up, I'll reiterate a point I made above: I like the core of a lot - nearly all - of the ideas presented here. I have major reservations about the numbers and final implementation of really a lot of those ideas. The tuning of those numbers makes kind of a big difference to the overall feel of the campaign, so I kind of envision cracking open the books and really going to town. But as long as my players aren't rendered dependent on something akin to DDI, I am completely comfortable making these changes and fine-tuning them over the course of the game. It's kind of what I do. The underlying architecture is really very nice, in that it combines a certain clarity in the decisions that go into a character with relatively straightforward mechanical functions. I don't see anything getting too convoluted yet. I would have to totally retool dual-wielding/rapid-shot mechanics and hit-point-threshold mechanics for status effects. It would need some management to make sure things didn't go nuts, but the effect-counter system I sketched out some time back might be my answer.