So, the public playtest is out and running around, and my group just finished our first session of it.
My crew ran the gamut from second-time players through to AD&D veterans, and most had similar things to say about the experience: it feels like a step backward, and that isn’t meant as a compliment. There were some differing opinions about how far we’ve strayed, some players saying it feels like third edition, with others saying it plays more like second or first, but there is general agreement in the fact that it plays a lot like previous versions of the game, and that this is not necessarily a good thing.
The best points about the game are that it is very much Dungeons & Dragons. The character sheets are familiar, and without much in the way of rules tweaking, we found ourselves in familiar territory. We knew what we were about, and everyone was able to make informed decisions based on their understanding of D&D in its previous incarnations and from other media that mirrors the conventions of the game. It was really easy to pick up and play, and there were only a few occasions where we had to stop and look something up to see if “this version” of the game had such-and-such a rule (in particular, critical fumbles and attacks of opportunity). The flow of the game was less immediately heroic than Fourth Edition, which is in many ways both a benefit and a flaw, but we all had fun, and that’s the important thing.
As a Dungeon Master I found myself settling into a comfortable role, doling out boxed text and sending waves of monsters at the players. The monster blocks were instantly recognizable and easy to work with. The descriptions of sounds, smells and lighting all helped my descriptions work, and I found the game flowed really easily and a lot like my experiences of playing First Edition as a DM.
The worst points about the game were the same things that make all of the editions previous to Fourth less than great. There was a real sense of slogging, even though the hits were harder and the combat rounds faster. The battles were quick and bloody, sure, but there wasn’t a lot to work with. Every player on the table bemoaned the loss of Awesome Daily Powers, noting that the player characters had fewer options for mechanically-enhanced ass-kickery. Singlue use spells for the casters couldn’t quite make up for the loss of Serious Face Kicking that would result from the busting of a massive daily power. Skills were another sore point, with each player wishing that they had different skills on their sheet than the ones they were presented. A rogue without Perception? No one had Bluff? Really? One player in particular found it atrocious that the laser cleric would have a minor spell that does nothing but damage. It doesn’t heal, doesn’t provide a bonus, doesn’t debuff the enemy, doesn’t do anything but hit a guy with lasers. Yeah, the damage was solid, but rogues and fighters are there to cause damage. Clerics are support, and that spell doesn’t support anything other than killing things faster.
As a Dungeon Master, I found each encounter made the game seem longer and more boring until eventually we just stopped because one guy had to go home. The adventure we were presented had a lot of choke points and it often felt as though one or two creatures were In the Shit, and the rest were standing off on the sidelines while stuff happened. It was tough to make the encounters interesting because a) they were very short, b) they lacked the tactical depth of Fourth Edition or even Three-point-Five, and c) it’s just another room full of fucking bugbears. I used some of my best description to liven things up, but it was turning into a real grind towards the end. Contested strength checks to move a guy out of the way would have been great, if there wasn’t always someone right next to the guy you’re trying to move.
Mechanically, the playtest isn’t all that different from Dungeons & Dragons Second or Third. Movement has certainly improved, but the encounters we played didn’t really build on that too much. Using Attributes for Saving Throws makes mechanical sense, but one player pointed out that not having Int attached to Armor Class or a more general saving throw made the Attribute feel a lot less mechanically important. Advantage and Disadvantage were stunningly intuitive, and likely the best version of the concept I’ve seen thus far, though when something grants Advantage or incurs Disadvantage is a little murky in actual play. The loss of Attacks of Opportunity is a massive blessing, and has sped up combat considerably. It’s also made running away a much more viable option in combat, as you don’t have to give your opponent a free chance to kill you if you want to disengage and get out. In future sessions, I will be working on putting player characters into specific situations that will test out how some of the rules work, specifically movement, magic, conditions and hiding.
Until then, may your adventures always remind you of adventures from your past.