Welcome back for another round of off-the-cuff review of the newest D&D Next public playtest packet. Tonight the review is particularly powered by insomnia derived from coughing, which I do not care for at all. They've been talking up this packet for awhile - as advertised, it changes things up a whole lot. The Big Deal is the three new classes, of course, but that's just the beginning. I've also spent a bunch of time listening to Mearls and company talk about this playtest packet in their podcasts. Listening to them talk always gives me the strong impression that they know where the game needs to go and what it needs to do, so I can only assume that the problems I'm going to point out are things they have themselves already noticed and addressed. Not that I'm going to let that stop me from writing about it.
To lend some kind of order to this, I'll follow the Read First document's general order.
They changed a few things here. Some of the changes are things I don't recall clearly. Grappling is still a total waste of time without some kind of additional enhancement through feats or the like, unless the defender's party is down to pretty much just the one defender. If not, grappling makes the attacker so vulnerable that I don't know why you'd bother. 4e is the only edition worth mentioning for grappling rules that are at all enjoyable, and there only because the Brawler build for fighters is so cinematic. I'm certainly disappointed that Push and Disarm are now gated behind martial feats. Let's try to remember that this is a game in which most classes are going to get four feats, ever, so they won't get to play with more than a tiny number of toys in the Feats list over the lifetime of the character. The design of 3e is bleeding in here, in a worse form than in 3e: look at all these neat toys! No, you can't have any of them, screw off.
The whole approach to feats here (yes, I'm skipping around, that's what "off-the-cuff" is meant to warn you about) loses something I really, really liked about the early parts of their design. Specialties are great as package deals, because they give you a unifying way (I'd call it a theme if it didn't make me so sad that WotC dropped that term) of thinking and talking about the character. Specialties are great if you look at them as a kind of secondary class.
Moving on. I did think that the previous packet's model of having all trained skills improve simultaneously was lacking. It also didn't give the player a chance to learn new skills without spending one of those rare-as-hen's-teeth feat slots. They've gone to the other extreme here. The base skill die is a d6 again. Three times in your career, you can increase one skill by one die size. The design is now much too stingy on skill competence. The good news is that it's easy to buy things outside of your class. Looking at the list of DCs in the DMing chapter of the packet, though... is a total mess. Track is not an independent skill, but it is a function of Wisdom that you have to spend a feat to use. Since it isn't a skill, I guess you can't get skill training in it? So... how were you ever going to hit DC 30? You can't fool me - your Wisdom bonus can't go above +5. Worse than that, the sample cases for low Tracking DCs are things that I could reasonably accomplish better than 50% of the time, and I assure you that I have no special training in tracking. This is another case of something they talked about as the reason they got rid of rogue skill tricks. They have said that they don't want players to feel like the only way to accomplish some particular action is to buy the feat, maneuver, skill trick, or whatever that grants access to it. Yet that's exactly what these rules hammer home again and again. They want to "sell" interesting abilities to characters in various packaged ways, but there's no available rules concept for an interesting ability being both purchase-gated and not (presumably the latter might involve increased difficulty or paying a temporary resource).
Two-weapon fighting rules (prior to spending feats) have changed again, and greatly increased in power. At this point, if you can pull together any kind of flat add to damage that applies to both hands (such as a +1 weapon in each hand), two-weapon fighting is better than great weapon fighting, by a very small margin. I know they want to not design around this presumption of magic items, but this is one of those cases where you want to at least examine what happens once magic items are on the table. On the other hand, particular feats and class features probably upend every part of this balance, so who knows. Oh, good, players can still benefit from long rests that are interrupted by a middle-of-the-night encounter. Extensive rules on all the beauty rest that spellcasters need in order to function the next day have no place in the kind of D&D that I want to play or run. (Extensive rules on how elves go into a trance so that they never truly sleep are entirely deserving of this apology. Fortunately, as Kainenchen has pointed out, this same guy went on to work on That Thing I Like. Seriously, his CV is rockin'.)
Well, first off, they've sacked Martial Damage Dice and revamped them into Deadly Strike and fighter-restricted "encounter powers." The change to Deadly Strike accommodates the criticism that the weapon's damage die became completely irrelevant as the character advanced; on the other hand, this model magnifies the benefit of a single big-damage weapon over two weapons, since you can only gain the benefit from Deadly Strike once per turn. I feel like D&D has been on a dedicated "greatswords should be the best" kick since 3e. It got ever more egregious over the course of 3.x (screw you, improved versions of Power Attack), got toned back down a bit in 4e, and is now coming to the fore again in D&D Next. I like greatswords maybe a littlemore than Steven Brust does, but for the most part I am on board with more cloaks and rapiers and fewer greatswords. Funny enough, even wizardly and clerical at-will spells get Deadly Strike-style damage scaling - the only thing this doesn't answer is why any cleric would bother melee attacks, since their damage scales poorly by comparison. Essentially, what has happened here is that classes of earlier editions are more differentiated in their attacks - high accuracy, high crit chance, situational damage spiking (Sneak Attack, for example), multi-targeting, steady damage output, whatever. They've gotten rid of accuracy differences, because those kind of suck. They've gotten rid of crit chance differences (aside from the ability to give yourself advantage) because those make their weapons more complicated. There is still situational damage spiking. I am flabbergasted to discover that Sneak Attack damage actually spikes higher in this edition than in 3.x (10d8 vs 10d6), though you have to make the attack with disadvantage and you can get SA damage only once per turn. (Side note: I'd like to see this change to "roll your attack twice: if one hits, normal damage; if both hit, add SA damage." Also I don't get how this ability behaves in the case that you do have advantage.)
Getting back to my point, stripping out all of those other differentiations means that two characters can compare apples to apples in their combat effectiveness - there's a lot less in the way of an argument about differing strengths and weaknesses. Once players can compare apples to apples, they see how suboptimal a lot of at-will options become. This is a bad path for players to go down in their thinking, since it magnifies competition in a game designed strictly around cooperation, but I've never known a player who didn't do that. Frankly, it caused a lot of bitching in Pendragon when it became too self-evident that this knight was better at all combat functions than that knight, and always would be.
So they've done this thing with classes where, apparently, it should just be trivially easy to become immune to the Frightened condition. Barbarians while raging, rangers with dragons as their favored enemies, monks, and paladins all pick up immunity to this condition. Druids, monks, and paladins all pick up immunity to disease. What's with this, guys? Is there some reason you want to make sure that the Frightened condition is totally useless? I know I'm treading on my rule against fulmination, but immunities are bad for the long-term health of the game. It's as simple as that. Why are fighters such cowards compared to the other warrior types? Buying Iron Will as their 7th-level ability is nowhere near as good as outright immunity. I do want to talk about the good stuff. D&D fans have been fighting over the concept of paladins being anything other than lawful good for... probably as long as the class has been around. Now that we're getting rid of mechanical impact from alignment, we're also moving into versions of paladins that are centered on their oaths or code. The Cavalier is the classic good-guy paladin, with all of the classic good-guy paladin powers (classic by 3.x standards, anyway). I'd be happier if they came up with something new and different to say about this archetype, or did more to differentiate it from a multi-class fighter/cleric, but it's fine. Next up is the Warden, which they're calling their Green Knight; I am sad to find that they are not unusually resistant to vorpal weapons, personally. It's a fighter/druid multi-class, without the druid's wild shaping, and it looks reasonably cool. Finally there's the blackguard, and here I hope they will change the name to something that doesn't come out and say that it's evil. In theory, the class presets itself as a viable potentially-heroic alternative to the other two types of paladin - so what do you call them, in-character, so as to support that fiction? Maybe WotC could lay out codes for each of these types of paladin that are something along the lines of the Jedi and Sith Codes. Such codes conflict with one another, but when evaluated from a neutral perspective and pursued in moderation, they can both be heroic codes of behavior. Druids! There are casting-focused druids and wild shape-focused druids. That's pretty cool. The casting-focused druids borrow a wizard mechanic for refreshing spells, while the shapeshifting druids scale up in accuracy and damage in parallel with Deadly Strike. Aside from the immunities, my problems with the class are that Thousand Faces (a.k.a. hat of disguise) is good for player creativity, in that "don't let smart players anywhere near this unless you want your bad guys to look more like these guys. Also, making the player wait until 10th level for something as low in throughput as Healing Trance is a strange choice - I'd give it to them in the first three levels, when natural healing is at its most important.
Last of the new classes, rangers! I'm surprised and not super thrilled that paladins and rangers are casting spells from first level onward these days. It's okay, but it doesn't fit my personal preference for those classes. The great thing about the ranger is that the favored enemy options aren't so laser-focused that the ranger is bored when fighting all other foes. They're really interesting abilities, mainly. The last thing I'm going to cover in this post - though there's plenty more that deserves discussion - is the new Exploration rules. The quick sum-up is that it's a skill challenge system to cover dungeon-crawling and hex-crawling at a different level of granularity than the six-second round. It applies specific rules and classifications where previously, I suppose, every party's approach developed according to the styles of the players and DM. For example, parties I've run or played with have never mentioned anything about mapmaking, despite everyone at the table thinking cartography is inherently cool. Whatever else I might say about this rules packet, I am interested in exploring this one area of new rules, because my current campaign has a lot of room for PCs to act as a surveying team of heretofore unexplored terrain, and not having to write that skill challenge on my own is appealing. Probably my only immediate disappointment is that mapmaking, unlike the other actions available to players, does not involve a skill check, or any amount of success or failure. It doesn't immediately look like these rules will scale all that well to parties of different sizes, in that small parties won't be able to cover all necessary bases. Maybe they'll give that some thought in the future. If this is a sign of their general approach to rules modules for incorporation into the system, I think they're on a good track. That's all I have time for right now. I do have a bunch of things I want to say about classes and how a class needs to justify its existence - I'm about a third of the way done with that post, but then the packet dropped and here we are.