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D&D Basic: Races and Classes

On Thursday, 3 July, 2014, the tabletop gaming world was... not rocked to its core, perhaps, but the vast majority of conversation was turned to the release of D&D Starter and D&D Basic for the new edition (which, for want of any other term, we distinguish as 5e). The former is available only in Wizards Play store for the moment, while the latter is available as a free PDF. I take only the faintest of interest in the marketing strategy behind a free release of the core of their rules - after all, this is a design blog. I wrote extensively about the playtest packets, so now it's time to yammer on about the changes made between the last packet and Basic.

Let's cover the most obvious items first: this content is stripped down to its most, er, basic elements. The four most traditional D&D classes (down from ten), the four races (surprisingly, including all of the subraces; down from twelve), six backgrounds (it kind of looks like five, but the Spy background is an alternate provided within the Criminal background; down from fourteen), no feats, and a substantially stripped-down spell list. To be clear, I think these choices are completely reasonable and good; they left in enough for the document to accomplish its purpose.

The rest of the PDF's chapters are generally the full text - or more - of the chapters they're copying. Character creation is mostly the same, though they've tweaked the XP numbers throughout the chart; I suppose the most "important" change here is that 20th level now requires 105k fewer experience points. There's a discussion of the game's tiers, which is a low-intensity bit of guidance to the DM as much as anything.

The Races chapter shows the first of the more significant changes. The ability score bonus granted by race (Con for dwarves, for example) got increased to +2, not including humans. Dwarves got a minor shakeup; their subraces, more so. The exact rules function of Stonecunning has changed to be more beneficial to dwarves who don't have proficiency in History, but still decent for those who do, and the "immunity" to getting lost in subterranean spaces is gone. They also gain proficiency in one of three different tools characteristic to dwarves. More surprising is the change to the subraces: previously hill dwarves granted Strength and mountain dwarves Wisdom, but this has been reversed. Hill dwarves still gain an extra hit point at every level, while mountain dwarves gain two points of Strength (otherwise unprecedented in subraces), and proficiency in light and medium armor - a benefit unlikely to be of any interest to the classes with any interest in a Strength bonus. Still, a subrace that has two nearly contradictory elements is interesting; dwarves are the only wizards in Basic with armor proficiency, outside of multiclassing.

As a digression on that point, 5e is doing reasonably well so far in making all races and subraces fit acceptably well with multiple classes - possibly even all classes. I have beat this drum before, and now I return to it: the hard cap on ability scores is what makes this possible. You can be guaranteed to reach the same 20 in your primary ability score that everyone else reaches, even if you started with a 16 and it takes you eight levels. In 4e, which had no such cap, a character who started with a 16 was always going to be behind a character who started with anything higher, and when that stat provides both accuracy and damage for all of your class's attacks, it means that races that don't grant a +2 to a class's necessary stat just shouldn't try to join that class, unless your racial feats go way out of their way to compensate (leading to some pretty egregious content bloat). Stat caps fix this and preserve bounded accuracy.

Elves are tweaked in only the most superficial of ways: elf weapon training got kicked from the core race over to the subraces, and Keen Senses is now proficiency in Perception rather than advantage. The former choice is unexpected, but currently meaningless since both subraces receive an identical version of it. The latter means that elves are only as good at perception as everyone else who is proficient, but they can spend the skill proficiency that would have otherwise gone to Perception on something else. Maybe a trifle off-theme, on some conceptual level, but no one will ever really care.

Halflings are entirely unchanged, though the text is fleshed out just a little more with physical descriptions. I am sad to see them stick to their guns on halflings being three feet tall - that's the mark of people who haven't clapped eyes on a toddler lately. At three feet tall and anything resembling proportional, they wouldn't have enough leverage or reach to do much of anything. Most strong characters in D&D can carry more than their body weight without apparent difficulty (because the default encumbrance rules are outstandingly generous). Halflings, though... with 11 Strength, they're comfortably carrying four times their listed average body weight. Antlings, we call them. This essentially comes about because 5e has planted its flag on the idea that drawbacks are bummers and races shouldn't have them. I don't agree with this approach, but it's hardly surprising to see it here.

Humans are essentially unchanged from their utter simplicity - except that there's also a variant rule listed here, in which humans get +1 to two scores, one skill proficiency, and a feat. Good luck implementing this rule in Basic, friend - it's more of a teaser for the Player's Handbook release, in a sense. It continues the "humans as generic" trend of every previous edition, and I have to wonder how or if there will be any attempt to implement cultural differentiation in later products. Anyway, humans are fine, but their stat bump is a lot less dominant in the game environment now that the non-humans are pulling down +2/+1 (except for mountain dwarves).

Now we move on to classes. Clerics are one of the more-changed classes: they get an additional skill from their class, shield proficiency now comes from class rather than domain, and they don't gain proficiency in the healer's kit anymore. (Neither does anyone else - it no longer requires proficiency. It's now 10 times that you don't have to roll Wisdom (Medicine) to stabilize someone.) Spellcasting has seen a tiny but interesting change: casters can now prepare slightly more spells (casting stat modifier + level rather than 1 + level), casters now learn more cantrips as time goes on (not super important), and at levels 18-20, they gain additional spell slots of 5th, 6th, and 7th level rather than completely flatlining. I think this subtle change will make an unexpectedly big difference in gameplay at the highest levels, though that's pure speculation on my part.

I think the designers finally got fed up with trying to store the rules for Destroying Undead inside the rules for Turning Undead. It was awkward as anything, so in itself this split is a step forward. This implementation is a little rocky, though: it is triggered by the target's Challenge Rating (a concept otherwise completely unexplained in the current PDF). On the other hand, it's still based on the cleric using Turn Undead, so the player doesn't need to know the undead creature's CR to figure out whether using Turn Undead is a good idea in this situation. This is the first implementation of Turn/Destroy Undead... possibly ever that accomplished what the designers wanted without a lot of complex fallout, because HD long ago stopped being the right scalar for how difficult an opponent is supposed to be. My only other criticism of this is that it feels a little like they wanted to make the cleric class chart look appealingly full of abilities, so they listed each improvement in Destroy Undead, which are awfully minor increases in character power.

Divine Strike was moved into the Life Domain. This surprised me; I expected all clerics to use the same melee damage kicker ability. It scales more slowly than Sacred Flame, though the damage add from Strength and (potentially) magic items makes that probably-negligible. I wonder what other Domains will do with this?

The Life Domain is the only one presented in Basic, and it's certainly the most archetypal expression of the D&D cleric. All but one of its abilities are directly based on healing. Now I discover that I never really read Channel Divinity: Restore Health closely enough in the previous packet; it's been tweaked and renamed to Preserve Life, but it comes down to allowing the Life Domain cleric to heal characters up to half health "for free" (in the sense that Channel Divinity comes back after a short rest rather than a long rest). This is a commanding advantage over every other species of healer; it's so good that I would not be sorry to see something like this proliferate to other healing-based classes or paths. "Up to half health" may not be enough that parties are completely confident about continuing their adventuring day, but half health + spending one Hit Die for natural healing... that should be plenty for even mid-tier characters. So aside from making a Life Domain cleric practically required, this might be a good fix for the healing game.

For the other abilities: Disciple of Life is a relatively small healing kicker, so no problem there. Blessed Healer splashes healing to the cleric whenever she casts a healing effect on anyone else - this creates some pretty awesome synergy with the new spell warding bond, which is a simple renaming of shield other. (Good rename, by the way - much more evocative name, at the smallest possible cost in doing what it says on the tin.) Supreme Healing comes at 17th level rather than 20th, but it still maximizes all healing rolls - useful but boring. All in all, I'd say the Life Domain cleric has become a much more solid and appealing class, since they won't need to use nearly as many of their spells on healing. I worry about what this implies for clerics of other domains, and for the attrition metagame.

Fighters are relatively tame on the changes, though there are some nice new fixes and additions. They gain two skill proficiencies from class now, rather than one, and choose from a much broader list; it looks like they've expanded their vision for what fighters can be, and I approve strongly. Mounts aren't tools anymore, so fighters do not gain any tool proficiencies from class, but Animal Handling seems to cover all riding functions, so it's an easy opt-in.

The fighting styles see some changes: the accuracy bonus in archery jumps to a commanding +2, which is really useful for making this an appealing secondary style for fighters of the Champion archetype who haven't prioritized Dexterity. (It is damned hard to compete with the +1 AC of Defense, though.) The Dueling fighting style is all-new, designed to appeal to single-weapon fighters (with or without shields) - I think it's good for fighters-with-shields to have a range of choices for their style benefit. It also adds appeal to a rapier-wielding Dex fighter. The designers also changed one of the most vehemently argued rules in the whole edition: Great Weapon style no longer grants damage on a miss. Instead, it provides a damage reroll whenever a damage die on an applicable weapon comes up as a 1 or 2. This is a pretty great benefit for a fighter that is all about putting everything into a single attack, and I love that it improves average damage without changing the range of outcomes. It also works well with the greatsword and the maul; their 2d6 damage values will trigger this benefit all the more often.

Second Wind is back to being a healing effect rather than a source of temporary hit points. It is per-combat just like the aforementioned Preserve Life, so one use of this is to hang onto it until the cleric has spent Preserve Life: half health + 1d10 + fighter level, before spending any daily resources? Yes please. Also, making it a bonus action, the new name for a swift or minor action, is incredibly good, and as a self-heal available to all fighters, it takes a lot of the pressure off of a cleric's spells per day.

Defy Death is gone, and Indomitable has moved down to 9th and been massively rewritten. Instead of advantage on all saving throws, it grants one reroll on a failed saving throw per day, eventually scaling up to 3/day at 17th level. I campaigned for both of these changes in this blog, though I don't pretend that my views held any particular sway. Also, the Champion archetype is still not as cool as the Weapon Master archetype that is currently MIA, but without the Weapon Master as comparison, it doesn't annoy me as much. It has also been substantially rearranged, granting improved athleticism in place of the previous Devastating Critical ability. So thumbs up there.

Rogues are next in alphabetical order, because the Mage class is now called the Wizard again. They are modestly changed; the step up from d6 to d8 is one of the more notable adjustments. I like this enough that it's What I Was Going To Do Anyway - for my money, rogues belong in that d8 mid-range of resilience next to clerics, not down in the d6 bargain basement with wizards. If your class wants you in melee, for god's sake, scrape together some hit points. Rogues tack on Intelligence saving throw proficiency, not that any effects in Basic seem to force Intelligence saving throws. Expertise got spread out a little bit, and until you are 13th level or higher, it's granting less of a bonus (because it's "double your proficiency bonus" rather than +5).

The change that I have a really hard time with is scaling their Sneak Attack dice back to 10d6, rather than capping out at 7d6 as they did in the previous packet. It is so easy to apply this damage, since you only need to double-team an opponent (positioning be damned) while not suffering disadvantage on the attack roll, that I have flashbacks to rogues just vaporizing opponents in 3.x. On the other hand, they can apply this damage only once per round, and compared to other classes, kicking out an average of 35 + base weapon damage is... just not that dominating, at 20th level. I'll be curious to see if feats or roguish archetypes or any other such thing juices this damage further, as more content rolls out.

Uncanny Dodge and Evasion traded names, and the thing that grants the huge improvement to Dexterity saving throws (called Evasion in 3.x and Basic) is stepped down to 7th level. Uncanny Dodge, I want to say, is boss as fuck for staying alive against a major damage-dealer. I am a fan of improving the rogue's general survivability without dipping a toe in the dark and toxic waters of immunities.

The Thief archetype lost Decipher Script, and Thief's Reflexes got kicked from 16th up to 17th level, but that's all. On the whole, I like the current position of the rogue class and the thief archetype. My only lingering concern is that it doesn't multiclass very appealingly; the most compelling reason I can see to multiclass into or out of rogue is its skill and saving throw proficiencies, since those scale based on something that is independent of class level. I suppose that a fighter build could get enough mitigation out of Uncanny Dodge and Evasion that it's worth sinking six levels into rogue - and the 3d6 damage bonus from Sneak Attack on most rounds would be a tolerable compensation for the loss of a second Action Surge and the third Extra Attack, at the most rarefied fighter levels.

Wizards have seen very little change, beyond the aforementioned tweak to spells per day and cantrips known. Wizards gain more skills from a broader list, and signature spells moved from the Arcane Traditions out to the core class (while filing off the specifications about which third-level spells to use). The Evocation tradition is the only one present, and my experience tells me that while other traditions are popular, blowing things to smithereens will never go out of style (as long as hit points stay under control and save-or-die doesn't become de rigeur). There are only two meaningful changes to the Evocation tradition: first, they now add Evocation spells to their spellbooks at half cost. I can only assume every tradition will share this trait, until we get into traditions that aren't one of D&D's eight schools of magic. (Will sorcery still be a wizard path rather than a freestanding class? There are clear suggestions in the text that the answer is a resounding No.) Second, Overchannel got bumped to 14th level, but it got much cooler - instead of a saving throw to avoid going directly to 0 hit points, the wizard takes a pile of damage that can't be mitigated. So thumbs up there. Wizards mostly won't have a pile of hit points to eat 2d12 or more damage multiple times in a day, but it does incentivize a Con-focused evoker build, which is on theme.

The one open rules question I don't know how to resolve here is the Potent Cantrip: how should this interact with a rogue's Evasion, in the rare cases that they intersect? Oh, and they've made it cheaper to duplicate your own existing spellbooks than to scribe something for the first time - 80% cheaper. If you take this to be a bit of world-building, there's suddenly a pretty meaningful incentive to duplicate your spellbooks and sell them, because I bet you could turn a profit on this. Admittedly, the buyer would then have to pay the whole cost of scribing the spells into her own book, because you can't prepare or cast spells of someone else's notation. Anyway, that's probably not terribly important.

Whew! We're done with races and classes. I'm going to end this post here, and pick up the detailed review of D&D Basic in a future post. Smart money is on early-mid next week. Some of the most exciting new stuff is yet to come, as D&D starts lifting concepts wholesale from the developments of the last ten years of indie gaming.

If this is the only one of my posts on D&D Basic that you read, I want to leave you with this summary: it ain't perfect, but Basic is a stronger and clearer vision of setting-neutral D&D than just about any of the playtest packets. I miss a few concepts that they explored in earlier packets, but between the last packet and Basic, they introduced some great stuff.

Edited: this post series continues with Personality, Background, and Equipment.

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