Old news: the D&D 5th Edition Playtest starts on May 24th, as mentioned here. Exciting. Kinda.
Except when you delve into the specifics.
We're not playtesting the edition: we're playtesting a very specific and limited bit of the edition. As mentioned here we get pre-generated heroes of the big four classes and races: fighter, cleric, wizard, and rogue, with the human, elf, dwarf, and halfling. They’re limited to first level and likely only a handful of monsters, if not pre-written adventures.
Assuming a return to the level 1-20 range that’s testing 5% of those classes. And if there’s the expected sizable number of classes on release (likely 11-12) that means we’re testing 1.666% of the game. Excluding multiple builds, different class/race combos, and the like.
This is not really earth shattering news and more than a little disappointing. It's hard to tell the stress points of a game at 1st level with pre-gens and a limited scope. 4e seems fine at 1st level and many of its problems don't appear until late in the Heroic tier, especially when you’re working with pre-gens designed to test the average play experience and not be finessed and optimized.
Will this work?
The point is NOT to test the classes and optimization and balance of specific options. At this time, the point is to test the core rules. The game itself, divorced from class and race and theme and background. Does the game work?
This is so vital. If you were to strip out all the familiar options and remove all the baggage and preconceptions, would the game still play? If all the class options were balanced and perfect, would flaws in the base game cause problems?
If the playtest was broader the attention would be equally broad and people would spend more time looking at individual options and combinations and not things like: Does it have the appropriate feel? How are the damage numbers? Does the skill system work as intended? Are the DCs right?
This is more important for 5e than for 4e, where the base game and core rules were a tweaked version of the 3e ruleset. It truly sounds like 5e is going to be different, with its focus on ability scores. It might be the end of “d20 + ability modifier + modifier vs. DC”.
Is This Important?
What’s the most broken element of 4th Edition?
Classes are fine, as even the most broken power can be errated. Monsters are fine for the same reason and problems with the math (defences, hitpoints) can be adjusted through future monsters. Feat taxes, while unpopular, can fix other problem and can be awarded for free by liberal DMs.
Then what is the most broken mechanic? It’s skills. The initial system is broken, and even adjusting the DCs twice cannot fix 4e’s skill system with its huge disparity between someone skilled and someone unskilled. 4e accidentally fixed the “lucky amateur and clumsy expert” problem by making the disparity so great that it quickly becomes impossibly for the clumsiest of experts to fail or the luckiest of amateurs to succeed.
The problem with skills was quickly noticed, as shown by the quickly updated DC chart and skill challenge rules. But the underlying problems went unnoticed for some time, because there was so much else going on, so much else attracting the attention and distracting away from the math.
Please sir, can I have some more?
When should WotC up the stakes and release some additional content?
This is hard; the trick is to release new content at a slow rate to allow for play and re-play, and not overwhelm the fanbase. But not so slow that the momentum and interest is lost. And there should be some sense of continuity between pre-gens and characters, because players do better with emotional investment, when there’s the extra drive and incentive to keep the character alive.
Monthly updates might work nicely. Some groups play weekly and my group tries for bi-weekly but others can only get together every month or two. If WotC releases weekly or even bi-weekly content it will be hard to keep up.
At the start it’s imperative to keep as many people looking at the same content for as long as possible. Likewise, WotC should hold off on feedback for a few levels, even if obvious errors are spotted. Keep the material consistent so the players can learn and push the system and really get a feel for the game. The first 2-3 sessions will be learning experiences and people will be caught up in the hype-fuelled play experience – the honeymoon phase of a new game – and not really catching nuances or subtle flaws.
Realistically, there shouldn’t be any rule changes until after GenCon (class changes are likely fine). The adventures and material for the convection season is likely already written and produced. It makes the convention slots run more smoothly if the rules are known; rushing changes through – even responses to feedback from May through July – will make for an uneven play experience. When they’ve had time to digest all the play experience of three full months after GenCon, then would be the time to re-write and release an update.
In democratic governments it’s unusual to have a single house of representatives. Even in countries as different as the States and Canada, both nations have a Senate. Because a sombre second option is always a good idea. It’s far, far too easy to jump to a quick, rash response.
Look at the paladin in 4e. There was a funky loophole in its mark that encouraged kiting, where the defender marked and then ran. It was silly from a flavour perspective but a sound tactic. But to mesh the flavour with the mechanic they tacked on a restriction at the last second, which had unintended side effects. Or look at the changes to items with the Healing keyword to wrangle a cleric build, which dramatically hurt the effectiveness of the artificer.
There’s a laundry list of small changes in 4e, reactions to abuse, that have had secondary fallout. Changes where the initial change went too far and needed to be dialled back to a middle ground, if the effort was ever made to fix the nerfing.
Playtesting a whole new edition will lead to similar problems. There will be tension points and proud nails that need to be examined and tweaked lightly. Solutions need to be slept on. Changes should be proposed and examined before being implemented, to see if they go too far or if a rollback is needed.
Putting the “test” in “playtest”
It’s a little disappointing that we’re not getting full rules, and that we’re not going to be able to switch from existing 4e campaigns to 5e. At least not for six months, if not longer.
Like every video game tester has painfully discovered, "playtesting" does not equate with "playing the game early for free".
A more broad release might have led to more testing as people testing the edition in actual play. But there’s still time for that later. There’s plenty of time, even if they’re shooting for a GenCon 2013 date (which is likely because eighteen months of D.O.A. 4e books is already hurting their bottom line, let alone expanding that to two and a half years). If they plan on allowing people to test the other classes (which they should) it might be a little tight, and testing the full range of levels could be tricky. As much of the game needs to be tested as possible; we do NOT need a repeat of 4e's epic tier, with bad monster math and questionably design choices.