I've been taking a look at the newest playtest packet and I, like many of you, have found that overall it has pretty much taken what was shaping up to be a pretty good game system, and just took a chainsaw to a lot of fundamental stuff. There have been a lot of cool additions which I will gladly point out, but the rest of this packet is a disaster, and WotC really needs to step back and try a do-over, because they've just jack-knifed this thing off a guard rail.
Now, I'm not saying that everything they did was a mistake. I'll give credit where credit's due; some of the new stuff they've come up with is pretty interesting, and this is the stuff I think they actually improved.
Non-Specific Skill Bonuses: Like in the iteration before the last one, skills are again tied to no particular ability score, which I think is great. It really does make intuitive sense to have a Fighter be able to use Strength instead of Charisma to intimidate, or even something more unorthodox, like Constitution for diplomacy (maybe he's chatting up a girl and he's trying to use his physique to sway her opinion). Unfortunately, this is a silver lining of a big effin' rain cloud (see below).
Domain Spells/Arcane Traditions: Now this, I think, was a great idea and for the Cleric at least it is very well executed. The Wizard gets into a bit more of a problem, but all-together I think this is a solid concept, and with a little bit of refinement this could be a really good way of adding more variation to spellcasters without continuously crapping out new spells.
Turn Undead as a Class Feature: Just as it should be, a cool little feature that is not always useful, but occasionally comes in handy, and doesn't burn your precious spell slots.
Words of Power: This was a really good idea, and I'm eager to see more of these spells.
The Fighter: I think they've done an overall spectacular job with the Fighter, and any lingering problems can probably be fixed just by tweaking the manuevers and adding more that are better. As for the class itself, though, it's a great start and shouldn't really need any major overhauls.
The Rogue (other than Sneak Attack): Again, I think the basic chassis of the Rogue is pretty good, other than the specificity of the "Rogue Schemes", it's definitely not a huge problem and, again, a few little tweaks to the maneuvers themselves would fix it all nicely. I definitely like the first vestiges of a "Martial Power Source" that supplies martial characters with a shared pool of maneuvers, and I could easily see "Expertise" as a unifying mechanic for martial classes.
The Wizard... Gets more HP?: Yeah, other than the signature spells, this is the only thing about the wizard that hasn't been trashed (excluding the stuff that hasn't changed at all).
Feats and Maneuvers being Openly Exchangeable: One thing that bothered me about the feats and maneuvers of the previous playtest, and that was fixed here, is that you no longer are locked in to feat or manuever choices based on your specialty or fighting style. I think that's definitely a step in the right direction.
Optional Rules for Healing and Ability Scores: Point buy is back (sort of), and I like it. Overall, I like experimental rules, since it allows you to pick and choose what method you prefer.
Monsters: I like the overall direction of the Bestiary, especially the recharge mechanic and optional abilities/traits.
Spells (in General): I haven't taken an in-depth look at the spell list yet, but those I've read seem to be pretty good. I know there are a lot of concerns with a bunch of spells being removed, but I'm guessing those spells will be back eventually after a few tweaks. In particular, I like that Burning Hands is 0-level now, but the matter of at-wills makes this bit of goodness ring hollow.
These are the parts where the new packet is just way off; there's less actual listings than the good things, but they tend to be much more serious problems. These are in no particular order.
At-Will Spells All But Destroyed!: Seriously, what the hell, man! I just don't understand why you guys would change something that has been seen as OVERWHELMINGLY positive from the vast majority of people who don't eat, breathe, and piss steaming hatred for 4th edition. Tying the at-will spells to Domain and Arcane tradition wasn't necessarily a horrible idea, but you've completely WRECKED the idea of cantrips and orisons in the process! As has been pointed out by others on these forums, having to waste spell slots to prepare your at-will spells makes the 0-level spells utterly useless, because everyone is just going to prepare the ones they can cast for free and forget the rest exist!
Spell Slots Flattened: I can definitely respect that you're trying to reign in the power of spellcasters, but even I can see this is way too much. The whole IDEA of being a wizard (or a cleric, but this mostly affects wizards) revolves around versatility and the ability to plan clever tactics around your spells; but just like the Spellbook mechanic in 4th edition, this flattening of spell slot progression makes knowing additional spells utterly worthless. It doesn't matter if you have 100 spells in your spell book, with only 2 slots everyone is just going to choose the two most powerful spells at every level and forget about the rest. It's 4e's Sleep and Flaming Sphere all over again!
Cleric Rituals are Useless: The whole point of rituals, as far as I could see, is that they allowed you to cast basic utility spells like Alarm or some such without wasting your precious spell slots on what could otherwise be used for more consistently useful spells. This is still true of the Wizard, but because of the pointless alteration of the Cleric's version of the ritual text, Clerics would still have to waste valuable slots to prepare rituals... so really, what the hell is the point? Why take 10x as long to cast a spell as a ritual for no appreciable benefit? I'm not sure if this was the case in previous playtests and I missed it, but I just wanted to add this in here.
The Skill List is a Train Wreck: I understand that the 3.5 Grognards were pissed about 4th edition consolidating a bunch of skills, but this is ridiculous! Use Rope!? Are you serious? How retarded would you have to be to not know how to tie someone up? Are you telling me that unless I dump skill points into this useless skill my 5th level Rogue will be worse at using rope than an eight-year old boy scout? That's just the most egregarious example, but the rest of the skill list is just as stupid. Disable Device, Escape Artist, and Sleight of Hand could easily be combined into a Thievery skill; Track, Spot, Listen, and Search can clearly be merged into Perception (or just combine Track and Search into Spot if you REALLY have to keep Listen separate); and why are Drive and Use Rope even skills... we're supposed to be playing heroic adventurers, and we have to specifically study in order to know how to tie people up and not slam a wagon into a tree? If you really have to, just combine those into the knowledge skill, and while you're at it, combine ride with handle animal, disguise with Bluff, heal with survival, and just merge Swim and Climb into Athletics.
Arcane/Divine Specialist: The initiate feats for these specialties are useless, and are clearly tied in with the overall destruction of at-will spells. There is no longer any reason for any class to take these specialties, even as a spell-caster, since you could just take a much more useful specialty at 1st level and then just poach the much better feats at higher levels. I highly recommend that you go back to the previous version of these feats, along with the recovery of at-will spells in general.
Disengage Takes an Action: This is something I noticed in the last packet too, and I just wanted to speak out against it here. It is totally stupid that you would have to waste an entire action just to back away from someone, and its inclusion here makes the previously skirmisher friendly battle environment just painfully bogged down. It's fine for the DM, since he probably can afford to have 2 or three kobolds or goblins blow their action getting away from the fighter, but for a PC its just not fun to waste an action disengaging from a monster who could always just move back next to me on its next turn. I don't see why you don't just bring back shifting from 4th edition... this isn't even an example of 4e hate either, because IIRC there was something similar in 3.5 too.
Bland Weapons List: This is another consistent thing I don't like, that there doesn't really seem to be anything unique about any of the weapons; yeah, there are a lot of them, but what is the point of having so many options when most of them are functionally identical except for which weapon group they belong to? I know there's some drive in DDN to make weapon choice less a matter of optimization (where some options are just default better than others), but this doesn't seem to be doing anything to fix that... in fact, it's even worse. In 4th the difference between a Khopesh, a Scimitar, and a Longsword was that the longsword had a +1 to hit over the other two, but no special property (except versatile, but who cared about versatile), so it was basically a personal matter between whether you wanted higher accuracy, high crit, or brutal 2. In the current model, you have several instances where two weapons are totally identical except one costs more.
Too Much Specificity: A lot of people have pointed out that a lot of the new flavor text seems really specific, and makes unwarranted assumptions about the characters choosing that option. I know you're trying to build flavor more into mechanics, but this is a step in the wrong direction; by insisting on molding the mechanics to your flavor, you're preventing the player (in some respects) from modifying that flavor to fit their own concepts. This is really an issue for the Wizard and Cleric; there's no reason why a Battlemage should ONLY be able to cast Thunderwave as their signature spell... how is it a "signature spell" of my character if the dev team forces every Battle Mage to take it?
Cleric Domain Spells are Hinky: This is a minor problem, and slightly related to the issue above. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the idea of domains, and a lot of the material there is just awesome, but in a lot of cases the spells you list as domain spells just don't make any sense. How does Command, Spiritual Weapon, and Divine Power have anything to do with a sun god? How is Detect Magic and True Seeing in the porfolio of a god of protection? I'm sure this is mostly a result of not having enough spells written up to fit into the domains, but I'm just pointing this out as an area that needs some attention.
Sneak Attack is Weak: 1d6 per turn just doesn't seem strong enough. Why don't you add some sort of scaling damage bonus into the maneuver itself, like have it deal damage equal to the expertise dice + 2 per rogue level, or something like that.
There may be more, but these are just the things that stuck out to me.
Yeah I think I agree with most of what you say. I think part of the problem with cleric rituals was concern over the sheer number of spells that might end up on a cleric's spell list. My own view is that the core list of spells involving healing, blessing and basic divinations, should be limited and the variety should be added into the domain lists. This way no single cleric will have a massive list of core spells to choose from.
Personally I'd probably look to make deadly strike weaker (highest out of dice spent per action or reaction - to prevent tanking two weapon fighting) possibly with a level based progression (e.g. highest any two dice at level 10) so that fighters are encouraged to be more versatile while allowing rogues the choice to spending more dice for more damage but in more limited circumstances. I might also want rogues to score an extra expertise die to damage if they use sneak attack with surprise.
I agree about at-will spells. I'd rather that domains and traditions added gravy to the basic at-will spells. I think the at-will specialty feats are wise to limit the spells the PCs cvan access but making them a single daily slot from the limited choice is truly awful.
The weapons can be simple in the core rules if they are complicated in the tactical module. I still think it's wierd that clerics technically aren't proficient with staves as basic weapons though.
I'm still committed to front-loading hit points and minimising level based constitution bonuses. Squishiness of wizards is greatly reduced using this method and the constitution gap is minimised at higher levels.
Did I also imagine that scrolls became a magic-mart again? With only 2 slots per level, nobody is going to want to spend a slot casting a spell off a scroll so they ditched it. Most people seemed to think that this was an interesting idea to look at and it seems silly to go back to the mess we had in 3e. I think downgrading damage and giving secondary effects on successful saves, such as disadvantage for a round, reduced movement, or something, could allow wizards and clerics more spells without being overpowered. If more utility spells are to be rituals as a resource not primarily limited by cost then rituals will need ability checks (possibly with bonuses like expertise dice) or some ther factor that prevents auto-success taking all the fun out of the game.
The Skill List is a Train Wreck: I understand that the 3.5 Grognards were pissed about 4th edition consolidating a bunch of skills, but this is ridiculous! Use Rope!? Are you serious? How retarded would you have to be to not know how to tie someone up?
Speaking as someone with an interest in bondage, I have to say that safely tying someone up is a lot harder than it looks, especially if you don't want them wiggling out of it. If Joe Blow off the street tries to tie someone up, odds are they're going to do it wrong, either by making a loop that can be easily loosened and wiggled out of, or making it too tight so that it digs into the flesh, and causes damage by putting pressure on blood vessels and nerves. I mean, to see the sort of skill that's needed to properly tie someone up, take a look at this; it's a video showing the step-by-step process of securely tying a woman's hands behind her back. It's SFW, but some of the videos in the Recommended Videos list might not be.
Besides, the Use Rope skill has more uses than just tying people up. Setting up a tent? Use Rope. Tossing a grappling hook at the top of a wall? Use Rope. Climbing up the wall you just tossed a grappling hook at? Use Rope. Using pulleys to open a sealed stone door? Use Rope.