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D&D Next: Off the Cuff, Round 7

The new D&D Next playtest packet came out just as I was leaving town for the weekend, but better late than never, right? Three major areas have changed in this packet, along with a few smaller changes that (for whatever reason) they declined to document in the Read This First pdf. So you get to hear me kvetch about races again (balance? what balance? fuck balance), go through the Spells document in as much detail as I can stand, and poke at the basic function changes of the How to Play document. From running Aurikesh, though, I've learned that changes to the How to Play document are the least important to me - when I'm making an on-the-spot call in the middle of a session, there is no chance whatsoever that I'll remember the new tweak to the Prone condition or whatever. Which is why it's good that my players don't know the rules either - no arguments!

New Races

So it's totally cool and all that there are rules for gnomes, half-elves, and half-orcs now. I mean, they're not good rules, but they certainly exist! Keep in mind that elves are still immune to charm and sleep effects, and their subraces either gain speed and stealth or an extra at-will attack. Dwarven subraces grant either more hit points or better AC - combat functions that come up every single time someone makes an attack against the dwarf. Halfling luck is... different from what I remembered, because now they only get a re-roll whenever they roll a 1, but they aren't limited to any number of times per day. I suspect that will play oddly with some future class mechanic, though; I'm sure something in the theme of Wild Mage or Chaos Sorcerer is just a few months down the line.

Gnomes get remarkable resistance to mental magic (any magic that forces an Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma saving throw). I take from this that the Bestiary will clarify whether any given monster's effect is magical or not, though I hope this won't take the form of Extraordinary/Supernatural/Spell-Like as we saw in 3.x. Recalling the rules effects of each of those types has never been easy for me, but when they matter, they matter a lot. Anyway, the gnome subrace abilities (side note: changing "subrace" to "ethnicity" or something would make me happy) support trickster-style gameplay, but it would be a stretch to say they come up often in most campaigns. I applaud DMs who make Speak with Small Beasts useful, while minor illusion and the Tinker ability are both primarily for entertaining others or creating distractions. Interesting, at least, if not powerful by any means.

Half-elves and half-orcs are the real problem children. I'm pretty sure 4e is the only edition where half-elf and half-orc are reasonably balanced against both of their parent races, because 4e followed a rigid template for race creation. Half-elves have slightly more freedom in their stat bonuses than elves, but they have resistance where elves gain immunity, and the same Keen Senses - but no subrace abilities. Half-orcs gain three points of ability scores, which is great, but beyond that they have only Darkvision and advantage on rolls to intimidate a target. At this point, I think I'd prefer to see half-elf and half-orc implemented as subraces of human, alongside other human subraces that are differentiated based on culture of origin.
Let's be honest with ourselves: Forgotten Realms for D&D Next will definitely have some kind of rules differentiating Chondathan humans from Waterdhavian humans from Halruaan humans. If the core rules don't implement something along those lines, FR's rule will be nothing but power creep.
Anyway, let's hope the new races are in draft form, and the designers either improve them to match the earlier races or tone down the egregious power of the elves and dwarves to match these new races. It should be obvious enough which way I prefer!

General Rules Changes

I'm tackling this section next because I expect my commentary on Spells will run on a bit. Finding all the changes in this document is not particularly easy, because a lot of them are little things and I didn't really give the previous document a fine-toothed-comb style of reading. For example, I haven't checked to see whether they had previously declared that the Orcish language uses Dwarvish script, which I find to be kind of an odd choice. Presumably this is because, in some incredibly distant past, dwarf missionaries traveled among the orcs and wrote down the stories of their oral tradition using the phonemes of Dwarvish. Maybe the orcs conquered a Dwarf Fortress of some kind, and got curious about how the dwarves slapped their runic writing on every blank surface they could find. Unable to read it themselves, the orcs nevertheless assigned their own phonemic values to the glyphs, and have preserved them ever since.

Anyway, I'm getting off track. The length of a short rest has changed to 1 hour, a rule I expect to observe primarily in the breach. A long rest restores all of your hit points and half of your Hit Dice. I wonder if that means "half of what you're missing" or "half of your maximum number of Hit Dice." My campaign has proceeded pretty comfortably on long rests restoring Hit Dice but not hit points, so that players then immediately spend more Hit Dice to recover hit points. I like the way we've done it because I can hang a bunch of interesting mechanics off of spending Hit Dice. We haven't yet run into situations where the player still isn't anywhere near ready to go adventuring after a day of rest, though it is certainly conceivable.

Critical hits have lost a good bit of bite. Previously they maximized the variable dice of the attack and then added one additional die of the weapon's type; now they do not maximize anything, but still grant one additional die of the weapon's type. The critical hit rules really highlight the problems with spells forcing saving throws rather than using attack rolls - a tiny number of spells can now score critical hits because they use attack rolls, but most cannot, and there's no particular rhyme or reason behind which spells use which mechanics.

The action economy of swift spells remains unchanged. I can't imagine they don't realize that this favors melee clerics over ranged clerics, but it certainly doesn't make any sense to me. (But then, if you've read this blog for long, you know how I feel about the current iteration of clerics.) The action economy has been tweaked a bit, though, by the addition of the Help and Hinder actions and the Dodge action, which are collectively all about granting advantage or inflicting disadvantage in a useful way. With all of these ways to manipulate advantage/disadvantage, though, they're running into the fact that there's no stated benefit to being "doubly advantaged," nor drawback to being "doubly disadvantaged." I continue to believe that they ought to address this somehow - how about adding (for advantage) or subtracting (for disadvantage) an extra d6 in the mix? They've used this mechanic elsewhere, of course.

There's really nothing to rituals now except that they exchange increased casting time for not spending a spell slot. I feel that they're missing a huge opportunity to give spells cast in ritual form some additional character. Also, if they wrote some additional mechanics around it, there could be a high-functioning utility spellcaster who only cast rituals and had no access whatsoever to spell slots for combat spells. Getting a little ahead of myself here, I'll note that Regenerate is a ritual that restores hit point damage... so I guess 13th level is the point at which you don't need Hit Dice or spell slots for out-of-combat healing anymore.


Going over the changes to spells could easily be an entire series of posts on its own, and I'm sure I'll be coming back to this well for many future posts. The short version is that they've meaningfully reworked healing spells and significantly expanded every class's spell list. I'll break this down into as much detail as I can, skipping over any spells for which I don't have anything useful to say.

They've added "amusing flavor" material components to some spells, most of which are based on tradition. I've written about this before; the short version is that this approach is a nod to tradition but a waste of time in terms of gameplay and game design.

Aid: Five temporary hit points for each of three different characters is a tough sell in the face of a second-level cure wounds healing 4d8+2, considering that it also costs you a spell preparation slot that you could be using for something else.

Air Walk: Someday I will understand why they bother creating both Air Walk and Fly, and always make Air Walk both higher level and less effective in every aspect. If the idea is that clerics aren't good at flying, why not just grant Fly at a higher spell level? Yes, I understand that the current info block for spells doesn't support that, but I'm sure they'll eventually surrender on that point. I do like Air Walk's use of higher level spell slots for additional targets, at least.

Antimagic Field: Interesting that this has moved from Sor/Wiz 6 in 3.x to 8th level for everyone. It's still a bad idea to include it in the game, though. The whole point of this spell is to take away all of the opponent's powers and let your fighters pound them into hamburger. Because wizards have zero non-magical survivability, it reduces the fight to whichever wizard wins initiative and then goes to hug the other one. The tactics of total neutralization are not actually all that cool, is what I'm saying.

Arcane Gate: This is pretty good for messing around with the terrain in a fight. My PCs did some weird, neat things with this in my 4e game, and I'm happy to see it again.

Banishment: For the inevitable introduction of Dimensional Anchor, I'd like to know what happens when an anchored character gets banished. I'd be happy with a nasty debuff, a pile of damage, or nothing.

Beacon of Hope: I like having spells that affect other spells. In this case, tossing out this spell maximizes all healing for the next minute. Now, clerics don't have enough casting durability to really go nuts with this, but it's still a good opening entry into spells useful to cast in relation to one another.

Bless: Interesting change to this spell - it's now a d4 bonus to allies' attack rolls and saving throws within the area. That's a pretty big deal, especially in the bounded-accuracy design environment... we'll see how this goes in the long run, but it's definitely worth its spell slot.

Blink: Huh. Half of the time, you're not available to target unless the attacker can reach across the planes into the Ethereal. We'll see if any monsters wind up with that ability. Also, it carries a 1-in-400 chance of totally stopping the adventure for 2d6 hours. It's a wrinkle in the spell, sure, but one that doesn't really make the game more exciting if it does come up. YMMV, I guess.

Call Lightning: This is basically its classic implementation. I just want to point out that I really like spells that grant a new at-will or times ever attack for their duration. I would give every class a series of options basically along the lines of this spell's function.

Chain Lightning: Toned down from its 3.x incarnation, but still highly respectable, it's capped at 40d6 total damage output. They've gotten rid of the part where the primary target takes the most damage - it's now one of the secondary targets that gets the worst of it.

Chill Touch: Aside from the fact that making two of the three wizard attack cantrips be touch-range is a dick move, I really like this spell and Shocking Grasp. They're both "damage and also another minor thing" - temporary immunity to regaining hit points and temporary loss of reactions, respectively.

Cure Wounds: So I love how spellcasters only need to prepare cure wounds once to get the effectiveness of 3.x's Cure Light, Cure Moderate, Cure Serious, and Cure Critical Wounds - which is super useful in the new spell preparation dynamic. They've retuned the scaling slightly for better 1st-level output. More surprisingly, they've removed the use of cure wounds (and all healing everywhere) to nuke the undead - definitely a surprising move, but I'm happy if they keep in that way. I'm even happier if they create something that does restore hit points to the undead. And... holy crap, I just realized that they made this touch-range, to give it a clearer niche as compared to Healing Word (the ranged heal). I'm very happy about this change.

Disguise Self: Weird, no specific rules for impersonating specific people. I'm sure those will make it back into the game before it goes to press.

Disintegrate: The hit point threshold of this effect is still pretty bad. One spell at a time, they're weaning themselves off of hit point thresholds to govern save-or-die spells; this is one of the last remaining holdouts.

Dispel Magic: Right now, this spell is really very simple. I bet that doesn't last. It certainly emphasizes the use of higher-level slots to make your spell less subject to dispellation.

Dominate Person: All dominate effects are charm effects, so immunity to the charmed effect is even better. Elves are bullshit.

Druidcraft: Prestidigitation for druids. I'm glad they remembered to give them this. It substitutes for a number of class functions that resemble skills or other low-level spells - determining which way is north, creating dancing lights, determining the weather patterns of the next 24 hours, and creating ghost sounds. This parallels Thaumaturgy for clerics - and I'm glad to see wonderworking as a part of clerics and druids, even if in this case it means little wonders.

Finger of Death: Yep, another hit-point-threshold death spell. Compared to Disintegrate, this is for times when you want a zombie servant, you want the gear the target is carrying, or you really need to target Con saves rather than Dex saves. Disintegrate, on the other hand, affects targets that are not living, is lower level, and if one of the above conditions doesn't apply, is pretty much straight-out better.

Flesh to Stone: It's save-or-die, except that it takes the caster ten rounds to make it actually-deadly - so that caster becomes Public Enemy #1 once this spell lands. Until then, it's just save-or-be-out-of-the-fight. The additional limitation of Concentration is also good. If it were up to me, this spell would be their template for save-or-die effects.

Greater Restoration: This spell includes one clause that makes me stare in blank confusion. "Return any of the target's reduced ability scores to their normal values." If there's a way in this rules set to cause ability score reduction (or penalty, or loss) I have yet to see it, and given what a pain in the ass ability score damage is to propagate through the rules in 3.x, I was really counting on them not to use such a mechanic this time around. I guess we'll see.

Guardian of Faith: The idea for this spell is good, but I don't care for fixed damage values. I'm not really sure why I hate fixed damage values, except that it breaks the pattern of rolled damage and skips a moment of tension that we've been deeply programmed to expect.

Guidance: This spell is straight-out amazing for what it costs (a cantrip). If the cleric can spare a turn, that +1d4 on the target's next ability check is great, and since you don't have to decide until after you've rolled the d20, it isn't expended if your roll is so terrible that the d4 won't help. One of the clerics in Aurikesh really liked maintaining that floating Guidance bonus on his allies, and while this won't rescue the cleric class for him all by itself, I imagine it helps.

Harm: This has to be the most convoluted wording of an inflict wounds spell I've seen. They're trying to preserve the idea that Harm can't kill you (all by itself, anyway), which was a lot more important when Harm did an amount of damage completely out of proportion to other spells of its level. This spell always gets weird once you combine it with rules for weapon-delivered spells.

Healing Word: Yay, the longer-range, lower-effect healing option is still here. 1d8+2 is pretty respectable, so it's viable in-combat healing. It scales slower than cure wounds, so the niche protection remains decent. They did with these spells exactly what I wanted, so while there are still other things I'd like to see happen in the area of healer gameplay, I think they've made a good step here and I am excited about finding something different to bitch about.

Hold Person: Keeping in mind that the Paralyzed effect is not currently all that bad for you - you don't get to take actions other than shaking off the paralysis, but you aren't subject to a coup de grace until you're beaten into unconsciousness (and I can't wait to hear a reasoning behind that) - this spell isn't a save-or-die anymore. Getting a fresh saving throw every round helps to make it only be crowd control, as I think the designers probably intended as far back as AD&D 1e.

Holy Vigor: All the stuff I said about Aid applies here too, but what I do like is that this solidly mid-level spell isn't a straight lift from 3.x. I want to see more new ideas in the spell list overall, so this one makes me happy anyway.

Holy Word: No alignment basis, so clerics of every stripe use the same spell and simply designate their enemies as targets. Big thumbs up here - it avoids a lot of the bizarre outcomes of alignment rules in spells like this. Also, it's a mass Banishment that keeps the targets out for 24 hours, but doesn't include a mechanism to crank up the saving throw DC, for one level higher on the spell slot. The spell is probably too good in that context, though I expect a lot of celestials and fiends to have a reasonably good chance to pass a Charisma save.

Hunter's Mark: Rangers spend a first-level spell slot for a 4e-like damage kicker and an improved ability to track that creature. Its superior duration probably makes up for its one point less of average damage as compared to Divine Favor.

Identify: They got rid of the explicit mention of invoking hierarchical spirits to gain the information. The wizard in my game should understand that I've really enjoyed playing the elemental spirit that has shown up for his last two castings of Identify, so we're keeping that bit of flavor. That little salamander lets me drop all kinds of useful information!

Inflict Wounds: This spell is very scary as a first-level spell, but it doesn't scale all that convincingly.

Lesser Restoration: Are there any disease effects in the game yet? Certainly not in the Spells document. I wonder how they'll work, and whether the Administer First Aid action might prove to be a useful skill? The physicker and the alchemist in my game would probably love a disease plotline.

Mage Armor: Expressing this spell as "your AC becomes 12+Dex modifier" creates an order-of-operations issue in the long run, or it causes the spell to soon become redundant. Phrasing this as "a +2 armor bonus to AC" is the 3.x answer, and thus goes down the road of categorizing all the kinds of bonus one can have, but it clarifies how this spell interacts with Barkskin, Shield of Faith, and so on.

Magic Missile: Now with three darts of unerring force! Its damage scaling is such that it won't really ever get used at higher levels, though. I bet they change that, rather than creating a Magic Missile Comma Greater later on. What do I know? Maybe they'll do both.

Mass Cure Wounds, Mass Heal, Mass Healing Word: Aside from Mass Healing Word using what seems to be the wrong effect die, these are all pretty good expressions of party-wide healing. Mass Heal is pretty well the last word in hit point recovery, but because of how the high-level spell slot economy works right now, it's a single-use panic button. On the other hand, two of the three other spells it's competing with for space are rituals, and thus wouldn't take a spell slot to cast, assuming you have time. Given its one-hour casting time, True Resurrection will only ever be cast in ritual form - if you can spare 60 minutes, you can spare 70.

Maze: Funny enough, reducing the check to escape from the Maze to a contested check between the target's Intelligence and the caster's magic ability modifier makes this spell worse than Hold Person. It's an 8th-level slot, which means you're only casting it once a day. For the duration, your allies can't beat on the target. It does have a potentially longer duration, but most enemies are going to win that contested check in fewer than 100 rounds. At minimum, I'd suggest that the target has to "progress" through the maze, and doesn't escape until it wins, say, three contested checks. Remember that this spell locks the caster out from using any other Concentration spells.

Meteor Swarm: I assume we'll see a clarification on the Venn-diagram approach to meteor targeting before this spell goes to print. I'm mostly sure this spell is intended to be able to do 48d6 damage to a single target (scaling down by six dice per successful saving throw).

Moonbeam: You know, I've never seen anyone bother with this spell before, but I think that's about to change (if anyone ever starts up a druid). Suck 3d8 damage (save for half) for moving through this area, and God help you if you're restrained in that area. Oh yeah, and the druid can move the spotlight back onto you if you do move, though it takes the druid's action. Considering that this damage might apply repeatedly over the duration, this second-level spell is totally worth scaling up with a higher-level slot. On the whole the spell is probably too good, since the druid can easily force creatures to start their turns in the spell's area, and getting two enemies to stand next to each other shouldn't be that hard. I'm seeing a pretty reliable 30-40d8 of total damage (scaled down for successful saves, but that's true of just about all spells) for a single second-level slot.

Phantasmal Force: This spell compares interestingly (not at all favorably) to Moonbeam, actually. It's a second-level spell that can't scale up its damage, deals 1d6 damage per turn to only one creature (unless you manage to convince the target to walk out onto a phantasmal bridge or whatever, in which case you get falling damage), and a single successful saving throw ends the spell. Admittedly, the creature has to spend its action doing so, and the spell can last for up to 10 minutes... but still. The thing I'd like some guidance on, for DMs, is when the game thinks enemies of various Intelligence should be suspecting an illusion. My experience with dedicated illusionists in my game is that DM fiat makes the illusionist an all-or-nothing kind of character.

Plane Shift: This spell now interacts directly with teleportation circles. I'm kind of fascinated by this change, and I definitely like the way it induces players to hunt down teleportation rods for circles on other planes. The spell doesn't call it out specifically, but nothing in the text prevents the use of this spell as a group teleport to a teleportation circle on your current plane of existence. This compares to a similar use of Teleport (also a seventh-level spell), except that it requires a sigil-marked rod (not a Sigil-marked rod, that's pronounced differently and from a different edition), it transports nine targets instead of six, and the spell is available to clerics, druids, and wizards, rather than just wizards. (On the other hand, it can't go to places other than the teleportation circle in question. It's not actually unbalanced... just has some niche differences.)

Polymorph: This spell is a major problem in 3.x, since every new monster book that comes out makes this spell more powerful. By restricting this spell to transforming targets into beasts, they've seriously reduced the ways in which that will be a problem. All in all, though, it's close enough to save-or-die that it should be treated as such. We're talking about one failed save to turn a creature of up to 150 hit points into a beached goldfish. New title: Transmute Person to Live Bait. (Inside joke for Wildlands South players: Still tasty to monsters!)

Power Word Kill: This is the ur-example of a hit point threshold and displays everything worst about that design model, as it asks the player to predict how many hit points the target has, and getting it wrong means your 9th-level slot is wasted for the day. Since there's no concept of an in-play basis for this decision (remembering that hit points are intangibles like luck and divine favor), I think this might be my least favorite spell in this document.

Prayer: This is one of the only examples of buff spells handing out fiddly +1 bonuses. If this continues to be the only example, then it's fine, but 3.x's Prayer was a major culprit in slowing down gameplay in my experience.

Prayer of Healing: They're playing with healing efficiency across the span of an adventuring party. That's fine, I guess, but this spell is strictly for out-of-combat healing. (If it weren't, it would have better throughput at lower level than Mass Healing Word.)

Prismatic Spray: As prismatic spells always have, this spell will completely stop play for a minute or two for all the rolls it requires. It's 7th level, though, so a wizard won't be doing it more than once a day. Could be worse. They've toned down what some of the cooler colors (blue, indigo, violet) do, since no one suffers insanity or banishment. This spell really only pays for itself, compared to other spells of its level, if you're getting a lot of targets in its area.

Protection from Evil: I guess I can live with this spell granting immunity to charm and fear effects from fiends and undead. I just realized that there's currently no Magic Circle against Evil in D&D Next - I'm sure that will change before it goes to print.

Raise Dead, Resurrection, True Resurrection: Currently restricted to the cleric, and there's not currently a Reincarnate spell to let druids bring the dead back to life. I'm sure this will change, but it's an oversight until then.

Regenerate: As noted before, the only healing ritual currently in the game, and thus a major game-changer.

Sacred Flame: It's like the now-absent Lance of Faith, but it ignores cover and has a shorter range.

Scorching Ray: One of the rare few spells that uses an attack roll rather than a saving throw. I like this version much more than all previous versions. Also, it has more generous damage scaling than most other attack spells.

Scrying: WotC took a shot at blocking the scry-buff-teleport routine by making Scrying apparently only grant Viewed Once familiarity, which translates to a 26% chance of an on-target teleport. With a 44% chance of mishap, I am pretty sure players won't take those odds. I'm getting ahead of myself alphabetically, but the combination of odds for Viewed Once and Mishap means that rolling a Mishap creates an infinite damage loop.

Shield: With a short duration and cast as a reaction, I like the fact that this spell blocks Magic Missile - you're dumping spells as fast as the attacker is, and the attacker might have split missiles among other targets. Works for me.

Shield of Faith: After about fifth level, I expect that most clerics won't bother spending their Concentration on +1 to AC for one target. I'd like to see some kind of scaling mechanic on this spell.

Shillelagh: Druids have a melee-range attack cantrip that uses their casting stats rather than their physical stats. Nice!

Silence: I am in the camp of those who believe that totally shutting down spellcasters is not what this spell was originally intended to do. I don't like the idea of using a second-level spell to negate one or more spellcasters in an area. I'd rather see this spell be a simple buff to stealth.

Sleep: Now 4d8 hit points of creatures, and hilariously likely to affect the spellcaster (hot tip: first-level wizards are not known for their large hit point totals). I'd still rather see this spell get treated, mechanically speaking, like the kill spell that it is (with no save). The tradition behind this spell is bad design and shouldn't be preserved.

Sleet Storm: Though higher level than Moonbeam, this spell does a few other things in terms of terrain modification that make it interesting.

Spare the Dying: This is their (unnecessary) nerf to Cure Minor Wounds.

Teleport: Right, so, Teleport. If you roll one Mishap on Seen Casually, Viewed Once, or Description, you and all of your targets are dead, because 1d20 + 80 is going to keep generating Mishap results and 1d10 damage forever. I expect they'll change this; 3d20 + 40 would be better here while still probably screwing you up very, very badly. I do like the Associated Object category - if you have something from the destination, you can't fail. That's good for plot-making.

Teleportation Circle: They made the reliable-but-restricted teleport effect lower-level. This is what I was going to do anyway, so I like this.

Trap the Soul: It's a save-or-die...ish... effect with no particular restrictions, except that you have to have some in-character way to guess how valuable of a gemstone you need in order to trap the target. I would really like to see some story-side expansion on how that ought to work. Also, they've removed references to a target's true name changing after it is used to cast a spell against the creature, but there's nothing new on what true names are or how you learn them.

Wall of Whatever: There are three Wall effects in the game right now. They're all pretty decent. There's no Wall of Force yet, though, and that one is one of the most abusive, I tend to find. There's also Blade Barrier, which might reasonably be described as the Clerical Cuisinart. I've never really grokked the thematic connection that D&D has maintained between clerics and a wall of swords, but whatever. My main thing about Wall effects is that I don't think you should be able to drop walls directly on top of creatures where they stand - I think Walls are about changing their decisions from that point forward, not the direct-damage effect from the casting.

Wish: My only objection to this spell is that it is going to be fundamentally untrue post-launch. The text goes out of its way to say "Wish is the mightiest spell a mortal creature can cast." To which I say, yeah, go on, pretend you'll never release "epic-level" spells. The meaningful limitations on the spell are that you shouldn't cast it in the middle of an adventure unless you're just spoofing some other spell of 8th level or lower. The stat reduction doesn't really matter because my question about ability damage (in Greater Restoration, above) now has an answer... but Greater Restoration is a ritual. You do lose spellcasting ability for a time, though. Anyway, Wish being in the game doesn't do anything for me - because of the possibility of downtime abuse, I think D&D is better off not putting this spell into unrestricted player use, ever. Rings of Three Wishes and djinn in bottles are fine and good, of course.

This brings me to the end (for now) of what I want to say about the spell list. This is by far and away the longest post I've yet written in this blog, so I applaud anyone who persevered to the bitter end with me.

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