Even though it has been a few weeks since the first playtest packet was released, I have only recently been able to finish reading all the documents. I did appreciate the format as presented in the opening playtest and I hope the format is retained even unto the initial release. However, the goal of the current packet is to test the strength and versatility of the rules system. Since most players in my area are reluctant to play after 4th Edition, I haven't had a chance to test the rules yet; at present, I can only comment on what I've read. However, despite that inconvenience, I have some initial thoughts about the rules so far.
First, I find the rules to be very simple to understand. I'll probably need to make some handy reference charts for conditions and common tasks, but in general I didn't have to think about a rule too much to worry about having to houserule it. In addition, the rules are very consistent. The rule for checking a skill, or casting a spell, or wielding a weapon is the same for each character. To me, this means that there are few circumstances where I need to look in rules to adjudicate a decision. Plus, I also don't have to wait for a player to finish looking in the book to make a decision, particularly during a combat session. This will make each session run smoother and more quickly.
Second, I think that relegating a skill to a basic attribute check is a refreshing balance of simplicity and flexibility. It is a good blend of the simple (but limited) checks of 1st and 2nd Editions and the intuitive (higher is better) design of 3rd and 4th Editions. Skills do not need to be “purchased” or trained as they were in previous editions; it basically says that anyone can do anything that they choose to do as long as they are able to do it. However, with backgrounds, themes and some class features, skills can still be tailored to suit a particular concept, without having the player get bogged down in resource management (i.e. skill points.) Keeping skills focused as attribute checks alleviates the strain of tying a character concept to game mechanics.
And by having skill checks be nothing more than attribute checks, a stuck iron door can be just as challenging for a 20th level character as it is for a 1st level character. Skill checks remain consistent throughout play, making it easier to create environments and conditions to keep challenging the party at any level. Also, by providing a simple framework for skill resolution, it gives the DM more flexibility with improvised situations; it is a better guideline for encouraging a “just say yes” doctrine. The system even allows the DM the option to create dynamic skill challenges. With skill checks the way they are, even a 20th level party can track bandits through the woods.
Third, Wizards of the Coast wants us to test the rules ability to transition from Skirmish play (Tactical Battlegrid) to Imaginative play (Theater of the Mind) and back, particularly in the occurance of combat. Skirmish play is simple enough: place a map on the battlegrid, position the minis, apply measurements. But Imaginative play isn't as straight forward: How do you describe distance or the size of a room? Do you use feet, meters, or a more vague description? What does it mean with the DM says that a monster is close, far, near, adjacent, etc.? Looking on the web, finding such information is simple enough (wrecan's SARN-FU comes to mind.) But what about for folks who don't have that resource? What about the players who are not able to afford miniatures? Without such guidelines in the rules, many potential long term players may shy away.
Fourth, there were a few sticky points in the rules that I found were either unclear or could be improved:
- I like the idea of advantage and disadvantage; it speeds up combat by eliminating any situational modifiers for everyone to track. However, no matter how many times you gain advantage or disadvantage, you only gain it once. I understand not allowing other dice to be rolled, but say they have an extra advantage or disadvantage; couldn't there be a circumstantial modifier to the advantage or disadvantage, say +2 or -2?
- When you regain hit points, you add them to your current hit point total, but you cannot gain more than your maximum hit points. Are temporary hit points affected by this, or can you have temporary hit points that supplant your maximum?
- When using a ranged weapon to hit a target, Dex is used to modify the attack roll. But some ranged weapons use physical effort to throw the weapon at a target (such as a throwing axe.) Shouldn't we use Str for such hurled weapons?
- “All damage has a type. For example, a longsword deals slashing damage, an arrow deals piercing damage, and a fireball deals fire damage. … some creatures have resistances and vulnerabilities to damge types, which can reduce or increase the amount of damage dealt.” What do we do with multiple types? Do we consider the attack to be dealing the different types simultaneously and split the damage among the different types as in 3rd Edition? Or do we consider the attack to be doing all types of damage at once and apply all the damage as in 4th Edition?
- I think the new list of conditions are very clear; you don't have to look at one condition to know what the rest of another condition does. I also like the inclusion of intoxicated as a new condition, and think it is appropriately described. But there's no flanking condition. Flanking has been a mainstay of the game since at least 2nd Edition, and I don't see a reason to disclude it. It is also a condition that can happen frequently enough to warrant an entry. Personally I see it this way: when you and an ally are on opposite sides of an adjacent target you gain the Flanking condition that grants advantage to your attacks.
- In the adventure, there is only one creature (Kobold Dragonshield in room 4) that has a value for Hit Dice. But when looking in the Beastiary, Hit Dice are not listed for any of the creatures, including the one in question. Is this an error?
In closing, I still remain cautious but optimistic about the direction the rules seem to be going. There were a few things that I feel need to be improved or clarified, but so far nothing needs to change. The rules are easy to follow and understand, and seem flexible enough to vary from group to group. I do hope the format released in the playtest is continued through to marketing, but it has no bearing on the strength of the rules. There were a few more things I had concerns or questions about (Int saves for one), but I'll need to wait until playtesting for any real opinion. I am looking for playtesters in my area, and I hope to be able to test the rules soon.