We have our first open look at 5th Edition. Have we all absorbed the rules? Good. Has everyone had themselves to position themselves staunchly in a “for” or “against” faction? Okay then. Let’s get started with another review ‘n’ assessment. Be warned, it's a long one. Grandpa Jester likes to ramble, he does.
Definition of Terms
I’ll be using “5th Edition” and “5e” in this blog for a couple reasons. Mostly because 5e is 2 characters and “D&D Next” is 7 (and a space). And while “D&D Next” is a good temporary name it is a terrible official name: what happens when they need to release another edition? Or – heaven forbid – an update or revision?
They can’t just call it “Dungeons & Dragons” because we already have a game called “Dungeons & Dragons”. It was published by this dude named Ernest back in ’74. And even then, we already call OD&D to differentiate it from the Basic line, which is also technically called “Dungeons & Dragons”.
If D&D Next it’s not officially called 5e it will be called 5e by, well, everyone, just to differentiate it in conversation. And confusion for the uninitiated.
Let’s start with the download snafu. They sent out e-mails with a bad URL. WotC putting out web content with dead link?! I am shocked. They offered a few ways to correct (re-petitioning for access to the playtest, through links on forums, or a number of links WotC tweeted or Facebooked), but the onrush of fans quickly overwhelmed the server.
This wasn’t exactly unexpected or unprecedented. A week prior three-thousand geeks cried in anguish and frustration at GenCon’s servers while events sold out. And a week before that, similar things happened to Blizzard with the launch of Diablo 3. All understandable as no company wants to spend $3000 for a server they need for a single day. But it couldn’t have been unexpected as WotC could just look at the number of e-mails pre-registered for the package.
Was it necessary? Not really. WotC could have made the document a password protected ZIP file and provided the password via e-mail, then hosted the ZIP as a torrent on their site (and/or a few choice torrent sites). That’s the strength of torrent programs: the more people who download the file, the faster it downloads and the less load on the official server.
The hoops needed to find the file were also annoying. There’s no download link on the Next site, instead an e-mail redirects you to the file. Because that’s ostensibly more secure. Which is meaningless, as the file was instantly available on file sharing websites. And with the official servers continually down, many people turned to download mirrors set-up by fans to get documents they were entitled to. After ninety straight minutes of struggling to get the files from the legitimate, official source I gave up and took 5-minutes grabbing them off some dude’s dropbox.
A brief note here on the Licence you need to sign before downloading.
This is the big reason WotC didn't throw the documents up on mirrors or just let it be distributed via torrents. This is also why they're not letting you play unofficial games at conventions, or online such as through online tabletops (including theirs) ‘n’ Skype. Because they cannot guarantee someone will or will not have signed the Online Play Agreement.
How is this a big deal? Because, as a litigious company, WotC is terrified of people using the law against them. Such as how the company’s policy dictates that the first response to any breach of IP or copyright is a Cease & Desist sent to the offender and their Internet Provider.
WotC is collecting feedback. So they need the proviso that anything you submit regarding the work is owned by Wizards, so you cannot sue if they use your idea. But, if someone doesn't sign, and suggests an amazing fix, WotC cannot use it.
Likewise, because the game has not been published yet, its place in US copyright is nebulous. They need someone in case someone pushes out a quick game in the next year before WotC publishes, so they can say that the copier either violated the licence or stole it illegally.
Pretty much what you'd expect from a company with likely as many lawyers as full-time writers.
Annoying but understandable, as it’s designed much more to protect themselves than as something to be used against the fans. I have some friends wary of signing because of WotC’s legal reputation, but I remind them that as long as you play fair and don’t do anything outrageously stupid they’ll leave you alone.
Okay... that all said, let’s get onto my evaluation and musings.
Curiously, this was the first thing I noticed.
5th Edition uses “feet” for sizing, movement, and range. While preferable to “squares”... c’mon!
There are three countries that do not use the Metric System: Liberia, Burma/Myanmar, and the United States. This is a collective population of approximately 372,320,001 folk who still use pre-1799 measurements, and both Burma and Liberia are trying to move towards the Metric of their trade partners.
This is fine if WotC is happy with D&D being considered “an American game”, and centered on national sales rather than international. If WotC is content selling to the 5% of the world (population-wise) that isn’t Metric then it’s fine if they keep “feet”. It just means they’re giving up on selling to the millions of foreign English-speakers, not to mention the 14% of the US population born abroad.
I’m exaggerating for comedic effect but this has actually slowed down my game more than some rule debates. Where the game grinds to a halt and everyone pulls out iPhones to google how many feet are in a yard, or how many yard/feet are in a mile. And the information never sticks; I still have no clue.
Personal peeve, I know. I’m petty.
The first place I jumped was to the monsters.
First, I love the return of flavour and the habitat/society paragraph. Sorely missed. While I liked the “only-the-necessary” monster descriptions in the Monster Vault but it’s nice knowing exactly where to look and having consistency to the entries.
Consistency is important, which is something Paizo has done but WotC has not. The monsters are fairly 3e in design, but with most monsters have a 4e-esque defining power. However, a couple of these powers seem fairly similar to player powers. The bugbear pretty much has a racial sneak attack with a different name. It would be easy to just call it “sneak attack” and have it follow the already well-known rules for the rogue’s sneak attack. This is something Pathfinder does well with its universal monster rules, where there is a collection of standardized powers with similar rules. For common combat powers it is annoying looking- up traits, so I prefer the 4e/5e version of including it with the monster. But for lengthy powers, situational powers, out-of-combat powers, and some spells including quick rules in the monster and expanded text in the back would be acceptable. Once a DM reads a power and uses an ability a few times they don’t need to consult the book, it just becomes second nature.
It’s an Ocam’s Razor thing: don’t reinvent the wheel for the bug bear and every other lurker, just go with the Name class feature.
There are a few monsters that use spells yet, which is something 4e moved away from. I like spells. Spells are standardized and you do not need to repeat information, especially if the spell is iconic & recognisable, especially ones the party uses: everyone knows what a fireball does. The problem with spells was not having to reference a second book, but having to repeatedly and continually reference a second book. A product (or Character Builder feature) that produces spell cards would certainly help, as would limiting monsters with spells to no more than 2 or 3 combat spells (as non-combat spells can be looked up at the DM’s leisure when building encounters).
The formatting of monster stablocks needs work, as the information is scattered. Late in 3e they divided monster statblocks into information you needed on the player’s turn (defensive), info you needed on the DM’s turn (movement and offence) and everything else. It might be good to divide monster traits into offensive, defensive, and interaction, and group the information accordingly. Start with interaction information first (languages, social traits, perception bonuses & senses, statistics): this is needed first, when the party is deciding to pick a fight or not.
Some information seems redundant. I don’t need spacing for monsters, as it says in their size. Likewise, reach should only be included if non-standard (different than their spacing). Although, reach for non-medium creatures as a reminder would be acceptable.
I was a little disappointed by kobolds, specifically how their racial power is very much a monster power. We know people will ask for player race kobolds. They’re such a fan favourite and their non-PC friendly power in 4e delayed their race write-up until this month. Even then, the lure of the scrappy underdog kobold kept them heavily requested. The 5e kobold has a very monsterific power which becomes overpowered in the hands of a PC race, as adventuring parties regularly outnumbers monsters. It seems like poor forethought. While the big Name monstrous humanoids (kobolds, goblins, orcs, gnolls, and hobgoblins) should definitely be written as monsters first and foremost, a glance should be made at keeping them – at the very least – not inappropriate as a PC race.
I adore the return to natural English to spell descriptions. It reads better, being less gamist and overtly mechanical, while encouraging thinking of the spells as more than discrete packets of combat powers. It is simply not enough to not discourage role-playing and creative thought, it must be encouraged, and nurtured, and enabled.
Yes, it increases the chance of misinterpreting a spell’s text. But the terse powers of 4e did not eliminate DM adjudication of powers or prevent munchkins from taking the intent of the power and twisting & distorting the language like Gumby at a yoga class into some unnatural yet literal abomination.
And yes, it slows down finding the mechanics of a power. But this can be solved through power cards, either official ones from a Character Builder or a couple minutes with a sharpie and a stack of index cards. No big deal.
I like the idea of spells being usable as rituals without having them be prepared that day, but this is still pricey are very limited. There’s only a single example and it is cost prohibitive at low levels. If this was more open, using spells for creative effects outside of combat would be more encouraged. Why can’t the wizard use grease as a ritual by spending 10 minutes and a gold piece? There is any number of creative uses for a “conjure lube” spell, and most are thankfully rated-PG.
Classes on a Waffle Cone
I’m not going to rant much about specific powers and numbers, as that’s not what’s being tested.
Instead, let’s jump to the contentious point: the fighter just hits things with his sword. No big deal. We’ve been told ad nauseum that the fighter will have manoeuvres (read: powers) they can learn if they want. This particular fighter does not, because this particular playtest is meant to appeal to older fans. It’s the bridge building playtest, the “5e is not necessarily 4e” playtest. If the fighter had 4e powers, 5e would have been instantly dismissed as “4e: take two” and many fans of older editions would never have given it a second chance.
Besides, some players like simple classes. That’s the point of having multiple different classes: to appeal to different types of player. And simple classes make it easy to learn the game. But the strength of 5e might be its ability to start with simple classes and then add complexity to that class without completely rebuilding the character. Something every prior edition has failed at.
Likewise, I like the return of Vancian casting. Does everyone? Nope. But I’m confident there’ll be a non-Vancian spellcasting class they’ll like and I’ll probably be indifferent to. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice classes I like to accommodate and win over people who hate that class, instead there should be more options added to accommodate them. You don’t change vanilla ice cream to sell more cones to people who don’t like vanilla; you add chocolate to the menu!
Ability scores are king. I dig that. And I love skills being tied to ability scores as it allows a DM to change scores when necessary (intimidate via strength if acting tough, perception via intelligence if searching logically), although this could be emphasised a little more. It also keeps the math flatter, so characters don’t get 5% better and jumping or researching or unlocking doors every level or two. This means the 15 ft. chasm is a challenge for longer, and that the fighter doesn’t break Olympic records at level 5.
And I like ability scores being saves. While you really only need the big three (Con, Dex, Wis aka Fort, Ref, Will) it is neat being able to call for a Strength save to escape grappling tentacles or sticky glue, or an Intelligence save to realize the inconsistencies of an illusion. I can totally see Madness working as a Charisma save, as something threatens your sense of self.
The problem with skills was that it was this static list, which acted as a crutch as players scoured their character sheets for what gave the largest bonus. However, amalgamating skills with other rules for interacting with the world doesn’t really get rid of skills. They’re still technically there, so players will still try and go with actions where they have a bonus. And instead of selling skills for actions, players will instead try and sell ability scores, seeing how many different ways they can use their best stat for interacting with the world.
It might be interesting to have rules for using alternate ability scores but with Disadvantage. Want to use Dexterity to jump agilely? Sure, but you have to take the lowest of two.
The only other problem I’ve really run across was how Disarming Traps didn’t really have an associated skill. Finding them was Wisdom (again, an argument could be made for Intelligence) but does disarming them use that same stat? I ruled it used Dexterity based on older editions, but I suppose Int would work as well.
The advantage and disadvantage mechanic is slick. A simple way of reducing the bloat of static math in the game. While there should still be +2s and -2s when needed, multiple rolls work very well. And as Mr. Mearls has said repeatedly, it’s easily added after the fact, as you don’t need to remember what you had rolled prior, you just roll again.
It’s a very potent mechanic. Ostensibly it only adds a +3-4 to a roll, but since it adds multiple die rolls to the game it turns the flat hit percentage into a bell curve. The chance of critting or whiffing with a “1” isn’t much higher, but the chance of just hitting (a 9-11) jumps to 75% making Advantage a +5 bonus. The Oneline DM discussed this and goes over the math here.
I worry that the mechanic will become overused. Anything and everything granted Combat Advantage in 4e. Rogues built right with an accommodating party could have CA in every round. It would be very easy to end up rolling twice for every single attack or save or check.
For example, let’s go back to kobolds. They get advantage when they outnumber heroes. Okay, rare in a base party of 5 but increasingly nasty with smaller groups. It also means if the DM is running a large group of kobolds as opponent for a higher level party they’re rolling twice for most of the encounter. Yuck.
The design should explicitly try and limit what grants “advantage” whenever possible, perhaps limiting it to situational modifiers and conditions, dynamic events that change or are imposed or created. Situations that might chance from round to round, or action to action. Spells, class features, powers, and the like should seldom grant advantage or disadvantage. Instead, it’s easy enough to have them grant static numerical bonuses.
Static bonus have gained a bad rap. They’re perceived as easily forgotten and a hassle. They were poorly handled in 3e (specifically 3.5e) and manhandled in 4e. The problem is that they last too long. They were fine in 3.0 where they were designed to last for multiple combats (durations of minutes or tens of minutes) so the changes and math could be written on the character sheet and thus not forgotten. The durations got slashed to rounds and minutes, and 4e went farther, deciding that tracking mid-combat durations was annoying, and instead made most powers last for a turn so there were four or five separate penalties or bonuses that may or may not be in play until the start or end of a turn.
For the above reasons, I hope to see a return to a longer duration for buff spells.
So far I’m optimistic. Flatter math means challenges, both environmental and monstrous, remain relevant for longer. There’s no Red Queen’s Race with the illusion of advancement, where all your decisions are set or you lose efficiency.
I like that classes feel different and the focus on ability scores for interacting with the world and as an avoidance mechanic. I love the return of said avoidance mechanic as pit traps making attack rolls never sat right with me.
While there’s some balance issues at the moment, these are easily correctable in the nine months we have left. Which does lead to my final concern:
In the chat interviews, Mearls and Crawford suggest that a lot of content (i.e. monsters) is still being worked on. Which is fair, as you don’t want to re-write the entire Monster Manual every time you tweak the rules. But there does seem to be a lot that hasn’t been written yet. Which was one of the problems with the 4e MM: they were still tweaking mechanics and having new ideas while writing, but didn’t have enough time to revise existing monsters.
Given they’re working on a fairly unforgiving deadline (GenCon next year, give or take a month, but prior to Christmas: no way they’re missing the holiday shopping season) they have a lot of content to generate, while also absorbing feedback and balancing class content.
It’s going to be tight.