Tuesday, August 14, 2012

D&D Next Second Playtest Packet: First Impressions

The second packet of the D&D Next playtest is now available.  It includes character creation up to level 5, with separate PDFs for races, classes, backgrounds, specialties (formerly themes), and a character creation document.  There are also PDFs for equipment, spells, and of course a character sheet, as well as the generally useful How to Play document, and a PDF detailing the changes in this version.  There are also several pre-gens, and for DMs a guidelines document and a new Bestiary.  No adventure is included in this packet, so you'll either have to stick with Caves of Chaos, check out Rats in the Sewer, or come up with your own stuff.  I heard somewhere (on the WotC forums, I believe) that an adventure would be coming next week.  Perhaps they're waiting until after Gen Con so attendees get the first look at what's being offered?

I've skimmed through most of the documents, and while I haven't had the time to digest everything properly yet (or make a character!), a bunch of things did jump out at me.  I'll explain below.

Sneak Attack
Its damage was increased to 2D6 at level 1, and goes up by 1D6 per level.  This was a necessary change, as using an action to hide and attack every other round used to result in much less DPR (damage per round) than simply attacking each round without sneak attack dice.  Coupled with the overall reduction in HP across the board, it's actually worthwhile now, and the Rogue is no longer completely gimped in combat.  He's still no match for the Fighter (or a 4E Rogue), but at least he contributes.  Furthermore, we get a new Rogue scheme, the Thug, which allows for an alternative way to gain sneak attack damage; simply attack a creature that is within reach of 2+ allies.  The Thug is more combat-focused than the Thief and less skills-focused, and while he's still a bit squishy at least he can bring on the hurt very effectively.  The Rogue is shaping up to be pretty cool.

Opportunity Attacks
They're back, and how necessary they were!  In the first playtest packet nothing stopped monsters from ignoring the big, imposing Fighter and bashing the Wizard's skull in.  Now doing so is a dangerous move.  When an opponent leaves your melee reach, you can use a reaction to make a melee attack with advantage.  Ouch!  Note that this doesn't prevent enemies from running circles around you, though opponents engaged with each other will be doing that anyways.  It also effectively puts an end to annoying shift+charge tactics that were rampant in 4E.  As a final note, one can use the Disengage action to avoid taking an OA; this action lets you move 10 feet without provoking.

Combat Superiority
The Fighter looks like SO MUCH FUN!!!!  The Fighter's Combat Superiority grants them a number of Expertise dice (it doesn't increase to 2 until 5th level, but your die size increases before that) that they can use each round for Maneuvers.  All Fighters start with 2 basic maneuvers, Deadly Strike and Parry (which allows them to roll the Expertise dice for extra damage or roll to negate incoming damage, respectively).  They then gain one maneuver based on their Fighting Style at first level, and more as they increase in level.  The old Slayer theme has been eaten by this system (the Slayer Fighting Style grants very similar benefits), and joining the party are the Sharpshooter, Protector, and Duelist Fighting Styles.  While there are many cool maneuvers overall, I don't like that you're "on rails" in terms of what you gain.  I would personally prefer that Fighting Styles be more like suggested builds, giving you the freedom to choose any maneuver in any order.  As it stands, each Fighting Style has at least one maneuver that I wouldn't have picked myself (a lot of times at 1st level, ugh).  Still, the concept has a lot of promise, and combined with different specialties I find myself getting excited about tinkering with multiple different kinds of Fighter builds.

Slow Healing Variants
Healing was apparently a very divisive issue in feedback from the initial playtest packet.  Four options are presented for healing during a long rest:  1) regain all HP and HD as in packet 1, 2) regain no HP, but all of your HD which you use to heal yourself, 3) regain all HP but HD only equal to 1+Con mod (I don't like this option because there's no difference at 1st level, and its effects increase the higher your level), and 4) regain no HP, and HD only equal to 1+Con mod (players who want injured PCs out of commission for days after a tough fight will be happy, but the problem of affecting higher level characters more severely still remains).  It's a start, but I definitely don't like how options 3 and 4 make lower level characters able to get back into the action sooner than higher level characters (it should be the opposite, or there should be no difference).

More On Healing
The second concern regarding healing is how necessary a Cleric is to any given party.  At first glance it looks like Clerics are very necessary because HD-based healing just isn't very potent (especially at first level).  However, characters have the option of taking specialties to make up for the lack of a Cleric (specifically, Survivalist boosts your HD-based healing and total HP, while Healer gives you reliable access to healing potions, which eventually benefit from max value).  The first playtest packet was mostly disconcerting because one of the Clerics was built as a healbot because he also had the Healer theme, but any party can probably cover their bases pretty well as long as one or two PCs pick up Healer and/or Survivalist.  The presence of these options even this early in the playtest process (we haven't even seen any classes outside of the core 4 yet!) is certainly promising. 

Skills took a huge step backwards, in my opinion.  We're back to a defined skill list, with each skill being strictly tied to a single ability score.  Even worse, this skill list resembles 3rd edition's more than 4th editions, with THIRTEEN different "Lore" skills, some of which have sub-categories, like Professional Lore (you get whatever your chosen profession is), or Local Lore (the region you're from).  There's also Spot (but no Listen) in place of Perception, and Sleight of Hand, Find/Remove Traps, and Open Locks in place of Thievery.  What's more mind-boggling is that Find/Remove Traps is Int based, despite the fact that noticing things should be a Wisdom check, and depending on the nature of the trap a Dex check might make more sense than an Int check (a trap with quick moving parts as opposed to a complicated design).  The open-ended skill system from the first playtest packet allowed you to simply apply your skill bonus to any relevant ability check, so the DM could vary the ability based on the design of the trap.  Though it's subtle, this new skill system is actually a new subsystem in the game, where you make a skill check instead of an ability check with your skill bonus applied.  I thought the point was to encompass as much as possible under the core mechanic of ability checks?  That's why each ability gets its own save, right?  Oh well, at least the skill system from 13th Age will be easy enough to port over (indeed, the first packet resembled a middle ground between 13th Age and traditional skill lists for D&D, which is what I loved about it). 

They're totally overpowered.  Whereas the other races can bump ONE fixed ability score up by ONE point, Humans bump one ability of their choice up by two, and all of their other ability scores by one!!!! In a game where most out-of-combat rolls are ability checks, and saving throws are spread out across every ability score, every ability is important.  This is a huge advantage for Humans.  Not only that, but they have a point buy (and theoretically a rolled-stat) advantage, in that they can buy cheaper odd abilities and benefit from the higher modifier of the next even ability up.  So what are the other races gaining by giving up numerical superiority across the board?  Mostly situational stuff like immunity to poison (Dwarves), Stonecutting (Dwarves), Low Light Vision (Dwarves and Elves), Immunity to Charm (Elves), advantage on perception checks (Elves), Trance (Elves), the ability to move through larger creature's space (Halflings), and a 2x/day re-roll (Halflings).  Oh, and a die increase in axes and hammers (Dwarves), daggers/short swords/slings (Halflings), and longswords/longbows/shortbows (Elves).  And some more situational benefits from your subrace (5 extra feet of movement for Wood Elves and the ability to hide better in natural environments, a free cantrip from the Wizard list for High Elves, etc).  Each race has a lot of little things, but they're all fairly minor, and sometimes they won't even come up in play.  I'd rather see Humans gain a +1 bonus to 2 abilities of their choice, get training in a free skill, and perhaps have a Heroic Effort type ability (since the Halfling has an Elven Accuracy type ability). 

The layout is better with fluff clearly separated from crunch.  I haven't read through the spells in much detail yet, but one oddity that I noticed is that some spells use a creature's maximum HP as a threshold (Ray of Enfeeblement), whereas others use a creature's current HP (Sleep).  I'd like to see all spells use current HP, as the notion of beating up stronger enemies in order to hit them with spells was a really cool idea.  It forced a tactical choice between spreading damage to affect more enemies with crowd control vs the traditional focus fire tactics, as well as using your spells as openers vs using them as finishers.  These two considerations have a lot of tactical potential, and I think that the way spells are designed should reflect that.

Multi-Attacking (Dual Wielder and Archer specialties)
There have been a LOT of complaints on the WotC forums about these abilities, but I for one think that the designers hit the mark surprisingly well here.  In the past multi-attacks have just been flat-out better; think about 4E Rangers, which have no tactical choices to make in combat because Twin Strike is always the right choice (or one of the Twin-Strike-plus encounter or daily powers, or Twin Strike in addition to a minor action attack or immediate action).  In this playtest packet, you can choose to make 2 attacks, each of which deals half damage.  Two Weapon Fighting is drawing more flack because you're forced to use finesse weapons, which have a lower damage die, and thus even a hit with both attacks will deal less damage than a guy wielding a big two-hander (or even sword and board, though the difference here is smaller).  However, insane and broken amounts of damage is no longer the point of dual wielding anymore, as it's more akin to AoEs.  Consider the fact that monsters fight equally well when they have 1 HP as they do with full HP (the only damage that reduces enemy offense is the hit that brings them to 0 HP).  A multi-attacker in Next is going to go after weak targets (whether they're naturally low HP enemies like kobolds, or enemies that the party has whittled down to near-death), thus eliminating potential sources of enemy damage as quickly as possible.  Not only that, but it actually allows your party to apply damage more efficiently because a full-damage attack from a Rogue using Sneak Attack or a Fighter with a 2-hander is going to be largely wasted taking out weak opponents.  Just let the multi-attacker finish them off!  Also keep in mind that the Wizard is unlikely to be relegated to this role, since his AoEs are all daily spells.  The best part, though, is that the multi-attacker has an actual tactical choice to make because if he doesn't think his half-damage attacks can finish anyone off (or if some big, tough dude REALLY needs to be focus-fired) he can always opt to simply make a single, full damage attack instead.  As a final note, I'll just say that a dual-wielding Fighter with Cleave can potentially wipe out 3 weak enemies in a single turn, which is phenomenal. 

Survivalist Specialty
Is overpowered (at least at low levels).  The Toughness feat gives you an additional d8 Hit die, which at first level doubles the amount of HD healing that you can accomplish.  On top of that, you gain HP from this HD (taking average nets you 5 additional HP).  To put this in perspective, the Dwarf Fighter pregen starts with 14 HP (the highest of the bunch), so the extra HP from Toughness is more than a third of his total starting HP!  And the Elf Wizard starts with a mere 6 HP, so taking Toughness would nearly double his total HP!  Granted, the feat doesn't scale terribly well, but first level is when your own survival is most in doubt, and a character that doesn't survive this level doesn't benefit from any of his higher level stuff. 

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