Hey, awesome, so there's a new playtest packet from Wizards of the Coast, and like usual I'll be commenting on it as I go. I have a slightly different context this time, as I have to figure out which rules my new Aurikesh game will be adopting, or if there are areas where I preferred the old rule.
The BIG news here is that the documents now cover levels 1-10. The rate of progression on a lot of things, like physical and magic attack bonuses, is much clearer now - many classes hadn't seen their first improvement in an ability by fifth level, but by tenth they've improved twice. It's also clearer that the fighter doesn't exactly advance faster in attack bonus, just earlier - that is, a fighter stays 1-2 points better than a rogue with weapon attacks, rather than widening the gulf. (But a wizard's weapon attacks have not improved by even one point, as of 10th level.) Perhaps more surprisingly, the cleric shows only slight advancement on weapon or magic attacks - though over ten levels, they've only fallen behind a comparable fighter or wizard, respectively, by two points (also two points behind on save DCs). Not the world's biggest deal, except that they also probably want both Strength and Wisdom, rather than expecting to get all of their accuracy from one stat.
The sorcerer and warlock have been completely removed from this packet. My players who are planning to play sorcerers or warlocks will be relieved to know that Aurikesh will be using the previous playtest's rules for these classes, with the exception of the warlock's eldritch blast - I'll be nerfing that slightly, probably from 3d6 to 1d10+4 (similar to, but an average of one point better than, lance of faith).
Only the fighter is still near-identical to its previous incarnation. The cleric has received three new domains, and to my great pleasure several of these map nicely to Aurikesh deities. Looking back to my previous commentary about how they might make clerics into another class's playstyle plus healing capacity, I wouldn't say that this represents a clear trend in that direction, though a trickster priest can be an awfully good substitute for some areas of rogue functionality. With a rogue-friendly Background, a trickster priest can cover all of the non-combat-focused bases of a rogue.
Huh. Clerical healing is now all ranged - there's no longer a split between cure spells being touch-range and healing word having a longer range. This makes me sad - I was hoping there would be two distinct paths of healing spells. Even healing word's "minor action" utility has been folded into the cure spells. I may see more changes later, but at this point their "fix" to healing is to give clerics even less of it in a day (but make the Lifegiver clerics, only, slightly better at it), since Channel Divinity has been changed to a damn useless Turn Undead, which is also surprisingly complicated to parse. I am strongly inclined to ignore this change and continue forward with Channel Divinity.
Okay, so I'm nonplussed with the cleric so far. As I've said so many times before about this edition, though, the architecture is good even where I don't think they have the numbers right. Moving on: the fighter and the rogue are now kind of two sides of the same coin: they share a progression in Expertise dice, but gain different Maneuvers, and fighters gain maneuvers slightly more often. The oddity here is that Deadly Strike, which all fighters receive, is as good as Sneak Attack, but requires no maneuvering or preparation to apply. I get that they want fighters to still be the best in weapon combat, but I'm not sure this is cutting it. Anyway, there's a lot I'd like to nitpick in the Maneuvers for both fighters and rogues, but I approve on the whole of getting rogues in on the act with Expertise. I do want to point out, though, that giving rogues Skill Mastery (which now uses Expertise dice) and scaling those dice up to 3d10 means that rogues are in a completely different weight class when it comes to skill checks - checks that challenge a rogue annihilate any other class. This is, as much as anything, a scaling issue on Expertise dice. The problem is that situations where the rogue will roll Skill Mastery (or the fighter will roll Mighty Exertion) are usually situations where nothing else is immediately threatening, and the player doesn't have to save a die or two for later in the round. Likewise, there's a widening skilled/unskilled gulf here, and that's another problem I've commented on before at great length.
There's one change to rogues that really pisses me off, though. Rogues are now "proficient" in the use of thieves' tools, and a quick glance at the Equipment chapter shows that thieves' tools are the only way to disarm traps, and can only be used by those proficient with them. See, I loved the fact that there were other ways a party could handle traps (such as a Background) if no one decided to play a rogue. Two of the fighters in my Aurikesh party are deeply rogue-oriented, and if we adopted this rule (obviously, we're not) at least one of those players would be going back to the drawing board.
All right, wizards. Wizards are now broken down into three Arcane Traditions, which are basically school specialties (but not really). The Academic is a generalist wizard, and the previous wizard's ability to cast minor spells at-will has been translated into the Academic's ability to cast 0th-level spells that she has prepared at-will. The character also has one extra spell slot of her highest spell level. Strangely, no Signature Spell for academics. The other two Traditions are battle magic (evokers) and illusions. Wow, thunderwave for an evoker's Signature Spell is powerful. So is color spray for illusionists. A lot of old first-level spells have become 0th-level spells - I was surprised to see burning hands and mage armor moved down to 0th level. Anyway, the change to wizards overall is the best thing in this playtest packet so far.
Oh, hey! Dwarves lost their poison immunity, and it got replaced with something totally sane and reasonable! Go team. Seriously, I can't tell you how happy this makes me. I hate PC-available immunities. Elves are still immune to the Charmed condition and any effect that would put them to sleep, though. So thumbs down there. Humans are still super... boring. I'm still happy that Aurikesh has completely new races. (Hell, even the humans are completely new, as much as I've changed them.)
Skill applications are a little narrower, and each Background now receives four of them. This is a Problem Adjusted. They're tying themselves back to their old way of thinking about skills: as narrowly-defined objects. But they're no longer tying them to ability scores (good move there), and the rules call for ability score checks of various kinds rather than checks for particular skills. This is exactly the wrong time to define skills narrowly, because that creates DM uncertainty - is this one of those times that I should allow this skill to apply, or one of the other kind? The answer, instead, is to keep skills general. They don't need to be part of a fixed list. One particular background can be the only appearance of a particular skill, and that skill can be the High Concept Aspect for that Background. Seriously, WotC is so close to embracing Aspects here. Two more inches and you've got it, and since they're not relying on Compels to provide players with currency, they dodge the thing that makes Aspects a headache for GMs. Other than that, I'm pretty much fine with Backgrounds as they are, though I think making the Soldier background the only extant source for Heal is bizarre. It's reasonable for some soldiers to know this, but as a basic function of the Soldier background? For a medieval fantasy world? No. (I'm sure I could shoehorn Barber-Surgeon into the Artisan background...)
...oy. Okay, they've changed basically every good thing about the previous incarnation of Specialties. Previously, they had built a high wall (crossed only by the Jack of All Trades) between Backgrounds (which gave the character skills and strictly-non-combat things) and Specialties (which gave the player feats and strictly-for-combat things). I thought this was genius: it stops players from "having to" ignore flavorful and interesting non-combat options in favor of powerful combat options. I sincerely believe that players need this choice to be taken away from them, not because they're ruthless powergamers, but because combat is when the stakes are at their highest and clearest - everyone knows the punishment for failure here, so you need to put as much into it as possible. The other great thing about the previous specialties is that they were great for letting characters dabble in another class. The mechanics might not be the same as multiclassing (not that we have rules for that yet), but the end result was a lot like multiclassing. After all, the War domain cleric with the Guardian specialty, or the Protector fighter with the Acolyte specialty, were surprisingly convincing paladins.
Well, you can still pick up Divine Magic Specialist or Arcane Magic Specialist to dabble in those classes (hot tip: Arcane Magic Specialist does nothing for non-spellcasters at 6th and 9th level), or pick up Ambusher or Stealth Specialist to be partly roguey, but there isn't much out there if you want to be partly-fighter. Endurance Specialist is about it, and that applies to a pretty narrow band of fighter-like concepts. I miss the Guardian in particular - admittedly, the Dual Wielder and Archer specialties had some really strange design choices. There are several Specialties that are non-combat-focused, which in my not-inconsiderable experience means that players will think they're cute and all, and then ignore them forever. Aurikesh will continue the use of the old Specialties, possibly borrowing from the new where appropriate.
The Healing specialty is again too powerful, but for a different reason. They've fixed the third-level ability of the old Healer specialty, now applying it at sixth level only to healing potions you brew (though this raises a lot of difficult world-building questions - can you tell the difference between a Healing specialist's potion and anyone else's potion? If so, why does anyone even buy the crappy version that includes a die roll?). So that's fine - but did they really need to be able to restore the dead to life for near-zero cost? They've again made it a serious mistake to go adventuring without a Healing specialist in the party. Since I deep-sixed its predecessor in Aurikesh, I'm likewise kicking this specialty to the curb. I may work on expanding the progressions for the various healing-focused Specialties I created to sixth- and ninth-level feats.
Yay, magic missile is no longer the world's most boring minor spell. It's now a first-level spell, and possibly higher - which does at least make for a more interesting choice. Oh, but they've made scorching ray more boring to compensate: second-level spell, divide 20 points of fire damage between up to five targets within 100 feet, full stop. Haste is in, but it pretty much just buffs your target and then gives your turn to your target. For spells like this, the game would be well-suited to define "full concentration" or something similar - a kind of concentration that prevents the caster from taking any other action.
ETA: Oh, no, I misread Haste. Crap, I liked that setup. Oh well, at least it uses up the caster's concentration, and costs the target a turn at the end.
The one really interesting new bit in spells (actually contained in the How to Play chapter) is that some spells require concentration. Clerics (only) can maintain concentration while taking damage - this seems a bit absolute to me, but it's better than worrying about keeping my Concentration skill maxed out at every level. You can fight and even cast other spells while maintaining concentration, but you can only sustain one spell that requires concentration at a time. This is used as a limiting factor on buff spells, or more complicated spells with a duration - I like this a whole lot as a way to keep a limit on the amount of complexity in a single player's turn. I can envision increasing this limit by, say, one extra sustained spell at a time (through magic items, specialty features, or the like), as long as that didn't get out of hand.
The "natural text" format of spells is starting to break down, especially as they include more complex spells; it's harder and harder to skim the text block for the one bit of information that answers the question you have right now in gameplay. Pulling out range, duration, area of effect, type and number of targets, and required components is looking more and more like good information presentation - I mean, there were very solid reasons that almost every edition of D&D has done this! (Reminder: I started in 2e.)
Huh. They've gotten rid of all of the "if your target has at least X many hit points at maximum, the spell has no or reduced effect" business. That's good, at least. (But they shoved it right back into the game in the guise of Turn Undead.)
ETA: No, wait, they just got rid of some of them. Command is still hit-point-based, and I still hate it. Also, let's talk about rituals... if "I have to prepare the spell" is my way around spending 500 gold pieces for divination, that's not an interesting choice - it would be incredibly rare that I was in enough of a hurry to perform the ritual (instead of just preparing the spell tomorrow) but not enough of a hurry that its one-hour casting time was too long for me to cast it. Identify, on the other hand, is just the opposite case - 10 minutes and 10 gold makes this another non-choice, but for this one I'd always use the ritual.
It's late and I'm not really interested in combing through their revised numbers here. I'll simply say that the balance still doesn't look right - monsters look too fragile by a long shot, and in general monsters need to be doing more damage. I'm sure they've torn their hair out at the idea that PCs are too fragile (which I do believe) while at the same time monsters don't do enough damage. I can explain that briefly - PC damage is completely, wildly out of scale with monster damage. If a PC fought his opposite number (the dreaded Evil Adventuring Party, for example), there wouldn't be more than about two rounds of fighting. On some level, PCs judge their toughness on the scale that their own character sheets offer them: the damage expressions of their own weapons. A first-level fighter could easily be dealing 1d12+1d4+4 damage: an average of 13, which coincidentally is probably also that fighter's hit point total, if he was lucky.
They've also slashed the XP totals, including the XP required to level. Second level: 160 xp. Now that's all relative and doesn't exactly mean anything... but it feels really strange to read. Taken in the context of the Encounter Building guidelines, though, it shows me that they expect four goblins to be a Tough challenge for a party. Not happening - I would expect the goblins to be a modest challenge for 1-2 characters, at best. Alternately, a single hobgoblin is a Tough challenge for a party of four - again, not happening. That is just not how the economy of actions works, considering that the hobgoblin will almost certainly be dead in the first round.
More than other areas of the playtest rules, this makes me wonder about the flavor of D&D that they're playing in WotC HQ. Is this really the style now? Look, the thrash-metal D&D that 4e sometimes represented wasn't for me. But I don't want to see that the DM is wearing kid gloves, either.
In conclusion, there's more good architecture here, but the implementation and final numbers are a mess. The best new changes are the rogue using Expertise dice, the Arcane Traditions giving wizards more differentiation, the introduction of Concentration as a limiting factor, and dwarves losing poison immunity.