My Review of the March Playtest Packet

I've just completed an extensive series of articles on the playtest packet on my blog.  I figured this was the best way to bring it to the attention of the designers (who hopefully find it useful), as well as to spark some discussion on the official forums.  

I'm about to complete the survey as well.  I get that the surveys are the most valuable form of feedback during this playtest, but I think that blog reviews also offer a valuable perspective in that they address the playtest more organically than the surveys, but are somewhat more accessible (easier to search, a more consistent voice) than forum discussions.   
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Just gobbled up your rogue review, and if all of the rest are as comprehensive, I will be very impressed.

Gonna read the rest now.

Since you seem to have a good eye for predicting how mechanics play out at the table, you might be interested in the homebrew rogue I proposed a while back.  The link's in my sig.  It was my attempt to fix the march packet's rogue, which I found just about the same problems with as you.
I don't say much on these boards anymore, but your review is so thorough and thoughtful that I think it deserves a response of appreciation. I really wish more people (including myself) had the time and patience to submit this sort of feedback.
I read through all the class posts, and skimmed the rest, and I agree with you almost wholeheartedly. Feats instead of class features/maneuvers is silly, the cleric seems awesome, the rogue sucks, etc...

I hope the designers read this.
Just gobbled up your rogue review, and if all of the rest are as comprehensive, I will be very impressed.

Gonna read the rest now.

Since you seem to have a good eye for predicting how mechanics play out at the table, you might be interested in the homebrew rogue I proposed a while back.  The link's in my sig.  It was my attempt to fix the march packet's rogue, which I found just about the same problems with as you.


I skimmed it, and so far it definitely looks like an improvement.  Your sneak attack is much more elegant as well.  I'll digest this more later!
Just dropping by to give this thread a +1
Very honest and intelligent reviews of the classes.
Also, I really like your idea for sneak attack, Ironblue!
I've just completed an extensive series of articles on the playtest packet on my blog.

Very good and extensive review Thanks alien270!

I skimmed it, and so far it definitely looks like an improvement.  Your sneak attack is much more elegant as well.  I'll digest this more later!

Just dropping by to give this thread a +1
Very honest and intelligent reviews of the classes.
Also, I really like your idea for sneak attack, Ironblue!

Thanks for the kudos.

I left a comment or two in your blog, but you've given me so much to think about with your review and how best to reshape the playtest, it seemed more prudent to just open up a discussion on the forum.

About your review on skills
The DnD skill system and how 5e will handle it is quickly becoming a point of fascination for me.  While I approve of consolidation in most cases, there's a lot to consider with the 5th skill list when figuring the impact you want to have on the game.  Obviously, it would be one of those ideal design spaces for modularity.

In no particular order:

Big yes to ending skill disparity between characters and classes.  I'm a big fan of the skill die for several reasons, but I wouldn't mind a static modifier that scaled within the bounds of BA.

Another big yes to putting the garbage expert feats back in their place.  Let them be skills, yeesh.

4e's wide-band skill lists must have been a big hit with your group.  I don't necessarily disagree, but from the experience I had with my 4e campaign one of the weakest parts of the system was the skills.  That's not saying much!  4e was solidly built all around and their skills were (IMO) a big step up from 3e.  However, here's what I found:

-Skill disparity was honestly just as bad as ever.  No reason to ever make a diplomacy check if you didn't have the highest modifier in the group.

-The broad applicability of each skill, while good on paper (and I LOVED the idea starting out), became rather repetitive at the table.

It's hard to explain what makes the granular difference between a jump check and a climb check so satisfying.  All I know is, there were many situations where my players and I felt compelled to slow down the action and figure out some sensible reason to shoehorn some of their other skills into the game not to just throw the one single 'obvious' skill at the problem over and over.  A conversation didn't seem to be accurately modeled by only 3 interaction skills, and making an athletics check to jump onto a swinging vine just after you made an athletics check to climb onto a thin ledge gave us pause.

I'm willing to bet that feel differs from table to table.  However, before you smush balance and tumble back together, it should be carefully considered whether or not anything is lost by doing so.  Dextrous super characters that can roll, flip, cartwheel, and keep their feet during an earthquake?  The sense of danger from feeling tremors shake the dungeon to its roots?  I'm not saying it isn't the right thing to do, it just seems more of a subjective, table-to-table decision to me.

There are two great strengths to the 5e skill system I'd like to enumerate:

-Ability Scores and skills are not rigidly paired up (and you mention this in a post I skimmed on Edge of the Empire, don't you!).  The popular buzzword is 'decoupled', and it allows far more flexibility to the DM and how he assigns tasks to the player.  No more poring over the skill list deciding which one to call for, you just pick the right attribute (which is a far easier process mentally as they comprise the 'furniture' of your understanding of D&D), and let the players decide if one of their skills can help them out.  Jumps can be dextrous as well as STRONG, or even wise!  Time your jump just right to predict the path of the swinging axe!  This of course also combats skill disparity (wookies intimidating with their brawn).

-This is something that has been lost in the latest packet, but you'll catch it if you go back to the earliest.  There was no actual skill list.  It wasn't written down anywhere in the rules.  That was a piece of subtle brilliance I'd like to see return in some form, because in effect it set the imaginations of the players and DM free.  Whatever your background said you were good at, you wrote that down and got the bonus for, but there wasn't any dictation on how you could use that at the table or what other skills you were missing out on by not taking.  This is essentially the 'decoupling' of skills and tasks (we're at the final frontier, now!).

The DM doesn't call for a jump check because there is no need to crudely translate the specifics of a real-pretend-life situation into game mechanics that do a pretty poor job of simulating all that anyway.  So there are no expectations, like buttons to push in a video game where you are sure of a consistent effect.  If you come upon a rusty locked door, it should make just as much sense to intelligently lever the thing off its hinges as it should to dextrously jimmy the lock open, or STRONGLY smash it, or wisely notice that the key's just lying there on the floor.  And you certainly shouldn't have the DM sadly shake his head because not one of you picked up the open locks feat.

EDIT:  Wow, I sure am long-winded.  Spoiler'd for quality of life.
Life has pulled me away from the playtest recently, and I haven't been able to really delve into it the way you have here, alien270.  I just wanted to say that what you've done with your blog is very impressive, and I like and agree with a lot of what I am reading.

Also, Ironblue: I wanted to also take the time to say that I have been reading some of your stuff in regards to how skills should be, yoru rogue design, along with some comments you made about how feats should work and other design considerations.  I really like what I've been reading.  Very cogent thoughts and designs, and while I disagree with some particulars, overall I'm very impressed with yoru designs, and they've made me reconsider what I want out of 5e.
Essentials zigged, when I wanted to continue zagging. Roll dice, not cars.
I really like the analysis going on here. It's not the most in depth I've seen, but it does a good job of covering most of the bases. I agree with a lot of what you said, some more than others.

I only had one complaint. It's easy to see that you are picking out the flavor you like and disregarding the flavor you don't. Biggest examples I saw were disregarding the ranger weapon choice, which a lot of people did like, and praising them for it. But then you turn around and are upset by the Warden changes, which only have 1 edition of flavor behind them compared to the Ranger's two (seeing as they didnt have the choice in 1e). It's a personal blog with personal opinions, so it's all gravy. I just thought I'd point it out.

Analysis is good, so keep on keeping on! 
My two copper.

I only had one complaint. It's easy to see that you are picking out the flavor you like and disregarding the flavor you don't. Biggest examples I saw were disregarding the ranger weapon choice, which a lot of people did like, and praising them for it. But then you turn around and are upset by the Warden changes, which only have 1 edition of flavor behind them compared to the Ranger's two (seeing as they didnt have the choice in 1e). It's a personal blog with personal opinions, so it's all gravy. I just thought I'd point it out.


Fair enough.  In the case of the Ranger it boils down to whether or not "I fight with two weapons!" is a concept worthy of a class or not.  Personally, I think it makes about as much sense as having "Axe Fighter" and "Swordsman" as separate classes (for example).  The class leans much more heavily on the "woodsman/skirmisher/hunter" archetype, which gives the Ranger a much stronger identity than "guy who fights with two swords."  Case in point, one of the most iconic fictional Rangers is Aragorn.  His wilderness skills border on the magical at times, or at least as magical as the subtle magic of Middle Earth allows.  

As for the Warden, I'm not sure why having only 1 edition of flavor behind it should excuse poor treatment of it.  It had a very strong concept in 4E, both thematically and mechanically.  He was the nature-magic warrior (an archetype split from the self-buffing melee Druid of editions past), extremely tough, and a veritable black hole.  He's the guy that you either weren't going to escape from, or if you did he'd pull you right back.  A partial shapeshifter less concerned with taking the form of natural creatures, and more likely to mold his body into weapons inspired by natural creatures/phenomena.  He used magic for a singular purpose - the better to beat you down with it.  

You could make the argument that some classes were "shoehorned" into the defender role in 4E; not so for the Warden.  He was the living embodiment of the defender mechanics.  I don't think I could consider any iteration of the class a Warden if it didn't have similar functionality.

As presented in the playtest packet, the "Warden" is just a side effect of the Paladin's archaic alignment restrictions.  It's filler, there in name only.  Just another Paladin that's pretty much the same as any other Paladin, but re-classified because he's not Mr. Goody Two-Shoes or Mr. Fallen Paladin. 



About your review on skills
The DnD skill system and how 5e will handle it is quickly becoming a point of fascination for me.  While I approve of consolidation in most cases, there's a lot to consider with the 5th skill list when figuring the impact you want to have on the game.  Obviously, it would be one of those ideal design spaces for modularity.

In no particular order:

Big yes to ending skill disparity between characters and classes.  I'm a big fan of the skill die for several reasons, but I wouldn't mind a static modifier that scaled within the bounds of BA.

Another big yes to putting the garbage expert feats back in their place.  Let them be skills, yeesh.

4e's wide-band skill lists must have been a big hit with your group.  I don't necessarily disagree, but from the experience I had with my 4e campaign one of the weakest parts of the system was the skills.  That's not saying much!  4e was solidly built all around and their skills were (IMO) a big step up from 3e.  However, here's what I found:

-Skill disparity was honestly just as bad as ever.  No reason to ever make a diplomacy check if you didn't have the highest modifier in the group.

-The broad applicability of each skill, while good on paper (and I LOVED the idea starting out), became rather repetitive at the table.

It's hard to explain what makes the granular difference between a jump check and a climb check so satisfying.  All I know is, there were many situations where my players and I felt compelled to slow down the action and figure out some sensible reason to shoehorn some of their other skills into the game not to just throw the one single 'obvious' skill at the problem over and over.  A conversation didn't seem to be accurately modeled by only 3 interaction skills, and making an athletics check to jump onto a swinging vine just after you made an athletics check to climb onto a thin ledge gave us pause.

I'm willing to bet that feel differs from table to table.  However, before you smush balance and tumble back together, it should be carefully considered whether or not anything is lost by doing so.  Dextrous super characters that can roll, flip, cartwheel, and keep their feet during an earthquake?  The sense of danger from feeling tremors shake the dungeon to its roots?  I'm not saying it isn't the right thing to do, it just seems more of a subjective, table-to-table decision to me.

There are two great strengths to the 5e skill system I'd like to enumerate:

-Ability Scores and skills are not rigidly paired up (and you mention this in a post I skimmed on Edge of the Empire, don't you!).  The popular buzzword is 'decoupled', and it allows far more flexibility to the DM and how he assigns tasks to the player.  No more poring over the skill list deciding which one to call for, you just pick the right attribute (which is a far easier process mentally as they comprise the 'furniture' of your understanding of D&D), and let the players decide if one of their skills can help them out.  Jumps can be dextrous as well as STRONG, or even wise!  Time your jump just right to predict the path of the swinging axe!  This of course also combats skill disparity (wookies intimidating with their brawn).

-This is something that has been lost in the latest packet, but you'll catch it if you go back to the earliest.  There was no actual skill list.  It wasn't written down anywhere in the rules.  That was a piece of subtle brilliance I'd like to see return in some form, because in effect it set the imaginations of the players and DM free.  Whatever your background said you were good at, you wrote that down and got the bonus for, but there wasn't any dictation on how you could use that at the table or what other skills you were missing out on by not taking.  This is essentially the 'decoupling' of skills and tasks (we're at the final frontier, now!).

The DM doesn't call for a jump check because there is no need to crudely translate the specifics of a real-pretend-life situation into game mechanics that do a pretty poor job of simulating all that anyway.  So there are no expectations, like buttons to push in a video game where you are sure of a consistent effect.  If you come upon a rusty locked door, it should make just as much sense to intelligently lever the thing off its hinges as it should to dextrously jimmy the lock open, or STRONGLY smash it, or wisely notice that the key's just lying there on the floor.  And you certainly shouldn't have the DM sadly shake his head because not one of you picked up the open locks feat.



True, skill disparity was definitely an issue in 4E.  +5 was too big a bonus to represent training with the skill, and the prevailing strategy seemed to be for most players to train skills that also aligned with their highest ability.  For a lot of classes, it was inevitable (Wizards with Arcana, Rogues with Stealth, etc.).  Honestly the math works out better if you train skills that you want to be good at, but that aren't backed up by high ability scores.  You're more well-rounded and so more willing to try a variety of skills, but you're not succeeding so often that the DM adjusts DCs upwards (leaving allies without training or high ability scores far behind).  

The little bonuses from Themes, Feats, Paragon Paths, etc. just made things all the worse, since these often added onto skill modifiers that were already so high that the new bonuses are scarcely necessary.  When building characters, players like the idea of succeeding almost 100% of the time, but in-game it gets boring.  Especially if the DM uses a fail-forward philosophy, in which case failure isn't the end of the world anyways (and often leads to story hooks that are more interesting).  

Yes, I did rather like the decoupling of skills and tasks in the earlier packets.  It's an interesting solution in that it provides the granularity of a huge skill list, but without the need to have a big list of skills taking up a lot of space on your character sheet.  It has a lot of free-form potential as well; when making a character, instead of picking from a list of options a player can say "I want my guy to do THIS and THIS well," and you can make up appropriate skills that fit the concept.  One guy's "I want to be a pirate!" with skills like Intimidate, Swim, etc. can be a lot different from another guy's "I want to be a pirate - on an arcane-powered airship!" which might grant skills like Magical Lore, Parachuting, etc.


Granularity in skill systems is a tough thing to nail down.  While swimming and climbing certainly require different skills in real life, an "Athletics" skill that models good physical fitness in general is less situational, allows physical (martial) characters to pick up other skills, and allows the guy who's in shape enough to have an edge in those types of activities (even if not a whole lot of practice) to demonstrate that edge.  

Another analogous example would be the "Fighting" skill from Savage Worlds, vs. games that have "Axe," "Sword," etc. skills.  Neither is a perfect solution; "Fighting" makes characters too "same-y" and doesn't reflect any personal styles, while I always find it completely absurd that a guy with 5 ranks in Sword is suddenly completely incompetent just because he picked up an Axe.   

Going back to a real life example, an olympic swimmer who has never rock climbed before is probably going to be better than a lazy office worker who has never rock climbed before.  He's more athletic.  But that's not to say that rock climbing and swimming are transferable skills; that olympic swimmer can't compete with a highly skilled rock climber at climbing rocks, and the rock climber can't swim as well as the olympic swimmer.  How much of this should a game model?  Well, as you said that's really a matter of table preference.  If you dig too deep into it, it becomes so unwieldy as to be unplayable.  Too abstracted and it won't meet some gamer's expecations of modeling reality.  

There are a couple of considerations that should be kept in mind.  The first is how well-rounded should a given character be?  Is it desirable if a Fighter is using ALL of his available skills just to make sure that he has Climb, Swim, Jump, and Break Object?  If a Rogue that will be expected to scout feels the need to pick up Spot, Listen, Move Silently, and Hide, and soon finds out he has no skill ranks left for social skills that he thought might be nice?   Or is it better to say Athletics, BAM you excel at feats of physical prowess, what other things are you good at?  Or Stealth and Perception, yep, scouting's covered.

Second is how often will a given skill come up in-play?  If Bluff gets plenty of table time in almost every session, but you only need to Swim once during the whole campaign, should Swim be lumped up into a less granular skill?  This example in particular speaks to me because of my experience with 3.x.  Swim was pretty much THE required skill for any armored character, because if they fell in the water wearing all of that armor they would probably be dead considering the check penalties if they couldn't balance that out with ranks in Swim.  How often did Swim come up in play?  Almost never.  Most of the characters that pumped themselves up full of all of those Swim ranks never even get into the water.  But the players were always afraid to neglect it because if they ever fell into water it would mean the death of their character.  And such an unheroic death it would be.  
Yes, now we are cooking with petrol!  You have illustrated the opposing viewpoint nicely.

I did some digging and found this old thread wherein a suggestion was made that really got me thinking about the philosophy behind a skill system.

Between you, me, and all the other talented windbags (hehe) that have broached this topic of skill granularity, I think the explanations have all been thoroughly covered, so I will be brief with my proposed solution.

A Choose-Your-Own-Skill List Adventure
OPTION A:  Broad and Freeform

Every character gets exactly 2 skills.

One is garnered from your background.  If you were a Sailor, you're good at doing sailing-type things.  If that means judging the weather, you're good at it.  If that means muscling a tiller through choppy waters, or scaling rigging, or taking a swim, or even keeping your bearings if you get turned around (as long as you can get a peek at the night sky), then you're good at it.  There is no limit to how many 'skills' you are trained in, as long as you can draw the connection to your character's realm of experience.

The other is garnered from your sub-class, or class build.  If you're a Rogue and you choose Swashbuckler, then you can be sure buckling some swashes is a thing that is right up your alley.  Some narration must be added to every build option, so that player's have a mental framework to build their character's fields of expertise around.  When exactly does a Swashbuckler get good at talking to people?  He probably couldn't haggle a good merchant down, but he could fake a linebacker right out of his shoes.  Would he get his bonus when observing rigid court etiquette?  I don't really know--that could be different for each swashbuckler.

A feature of this option is the deliberate hands-off approach to player/DM interpretation.  Adjudication is left entirely to the group, which encourages character attachment and roleplaying over rollplaying...  But when the definitions are so vague, they have to be watched out for.  There is the potential for dominant players to 'game the system' and abuse their interpretations of when they should get a bonus.

With this option, when choosing the skill training feat, it is only necessary to describe in brief the task that the feat allows you to get a bonus in, as there is no specific list of skills to choose from.

OPTION B:  Broad and Consolidated

Every character gets a handful of broadly-applicable skills from his background, and often 1 or 2 from his class as well.  The skill list caps out at about 15, possibly 20.  In this way, a group of 5 or 6 could reasonably expect to cover most any need, with some overlap so that no one player is indispensable.

In this system, skills are defined as large and flexible areas of player ability, and any one skill could do the job of three or four from a more exhaustive list.  Players choose to be good at Athletics, Acrobatics, Stealth, and Thievery, each of those conveying proficiency in any task related to that domain of ability.

What is important to keep in mind with this option is that skills don't necessarily key off of any one ability score; it will sometimes make more sense to jump (athletics) with dexterity than strength.  This keeps ability checks from becoming too stale.

Limiting the number of trained skills in this system is advisable, to keep each character from becoming universal jack-of-all-trades.  Also consider keeping skill choice locked into backgrounds and class, minimizing certain (possible) overpowered combinations, and forcing disparate but flavorful skills together.  A good base number is 4 skills from the background, and 1-2 skills from a class that warrants it.  It may prove necessary to remove the ability to train new skills from standard character growth, at 2nd, 7th, 12th, and 17th level, and replace it with another substantive boon.  Most characters, even at max level, shouldn't get close to mastering every single skill in the game.

OPTION C:  Detailed and Comprehensive

Every character gets quite a number of specific, narrowly-applicable skills from his background, and more than a few from his class in many cases.  The skill list is exhaustive; nearly any task above manual labor with some knowledge or proficiency to it is on the list.  The total number of skills may get as high as 30-40, ensuring a wide variety of disciplines that can be learned.  A part of 5 or 6 players would probably have several skills they know but little of, so there is room to grow.

In this system, skills are defined as tasks, nothing more, nothing less.  If there is an art to breaking an object, that's a skill.  If climbing and swimming can be considered distinct actions, they are distinct skills.  Consequently, the more skills a player gets to choose, the less it feel like he is unproficient at tasks he ought to have some ability in.

A good base number of skills trained in this system is 5 from background, and 2 from class.  Certain classes, like the rogue, can expect nearly 9 or 10 trained skills at first level.  This is necessary to cover their eclectic training.  Also consider making skill choice easier on players, by allowing them to customize the skills they gain from their background to some extent.  Finally, regularly awarding additional trained skills will make players feel like they can combat to some extent the monolithic list of tasks they feel they need to excel in.  Getting an additional trained skill at levels 2, 7, 12, and 17 is assumed in the core system, but you may consider adding even more to that.

Well, about as brief as guys like me can get.  Modular design at work.  How does that grab you fellas?
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