D&D Next Playtest – 3 Impressions

For the past six months or so, my friends and I have been able to get somewhat monthly sessions of Dungeons and Dragons going. We started with 4th Edition because it was the easiest to pick up, and we’ve been having a pretty good time with it when we get together.

Like any gaming system, there are flaws with it, and the biggest issue we have with 4e is that combat takes forever. We seriously spent 3+ hours fighting a herd of slug-cows a few weeks back before we ever got into the actual dungeon. And simple dungeon crawls were often trudging because there weren’t necessarily a lot of tricks and traps and neat stuff to explore; there were instead mobs and mobs of all these icky critters.

But that’s to be expected. D&D 4e is designed from the ground up to be based around combat encounters. To fall back on an overused comparison, D&D 4e plays like tabletop World of Warcraft, complete with tanks, healers, and DPS classes.

But D&D Next feels so much like an old-school dice-romp, combat wasn’t even in my mind. The playtest came with premade characters for a well-rounded party, an adventure module, and all kinds notes that both players and DMs would need to actually run the campaign.

So over the course of the evening, we had a pretty good time with the playtest. Personally, I had a better time playing D&D Next than I do with 4e, but that might just be because it’s shiny and not because of the rules. Our DM picks and chooses his rules anyway–he doesn’t let gameplay get in the way of having a good time.

That being said, there are three major points I noticed about D&D Next in our brief time together, some good, some meh, and some still up-in-the-air.

Gameplay/Storytelling Over Combat

The first thing you have to notice when you’re reading over the playtest materials is that these rules are not geared toward combat like 4e’s are. Where 4e’s abilities and spells are all about how they affect PCs and NPCs in combat (or combat-like encounters), Next doesn’t worry so much about that. Gone are the rigid movement and spacing requirements, and in are simple descriptions of what the spells do.

For instance, take the Wizard spell Ray of Frost. Here are the 4e and Next versions of the spell.

Ray of Frost – D&D 4th Edition
Ray of Frost – D&D Next (Playtest 1)

By cutting out a lot of the extraneous information, the developers have actually provided more freedom for the players to do what they want to. I mean, during this playtest, there was a grey ooze coming up through the floor that only manifested out of puddles when something was near it. So I conjured a Mage Hand to make it congeal and my other Wizard buddy shot a Ray of Frost at it to freeze it solid so our party could skirt by unharmed.

If it had been D&D 4e, the Ray of Frost would have done a maximum of 9 damage, not killed the thing, and we’d have been in over our heads.

Simpler, but Far More Complex

There’s a definite difference in something being complex and something being complicated. The 4e combat system is simply complicated, but it’s really not that complex. You have a few kinds of actions (at will, standard, encounter, daily, movement, etc.) that you can perform in various combinations during your turn.

See, not complex at all. But it becomes complicated when you’re trying to figure out what to do.

D&D Next has pared it down. Now, you just get an action during your turn. Paraphrasing the handbook here, “just do something.” Every player gets 1 thing he or she can do, and the DM gets to decide if it’s major enough to take your turn. Instead of worry about action points, movement speeds, and how many tiles away from the monsters you are, you get to put on your robe and wizard hat and blast the hell out of that bugbear with Magic Missle.

This style of gameplay is far more subjective, mind you, but it opens up some really complex pairings between players and their environment that simply isn’t possible when locked into the tileset of 4e. Technically, could that Ray of Frost earlier freeze that grey ooze? It didn’t say anything about it in the literature, but we paired up and gave it a shot. The DM liked it, so we succeeded.

Could that have happened in 4e? Of course! But you’d have been breaking the rules of the game you’re playing, which makes your choice of 4e arbitrary. In D&D Next, the rule doesn’t exist to be broken. Instead, you have a framework on which to build the game you want to play instead of the one the devs want you to.

Some people may not like that. Some people may yearn for that structure. But for me, I want the open-world sandbox D&D.

No Character Creation Rules…Yet

A few issues came up over the night regarding stat modifiers, what was on the character sheets, why there were certain numbers in certain places, that kind of thing. The answer to the question was invariably, “I don’t know.” Because there’s no way to know. During the playtest, there just isn’t a way to know exactly why there’s a +6 in X place that contradicts the +3 in Y.

So we’re left with a very open-ended system that has a few hiccups in it, and no one knows exactly what to do about it. So you know what you do? You improvise. The DM makes a decision, and you run with it. If he says use the +6, you use it. You don’t question why. That’s why it’s a playtest–to bring up these ideas to the developers and make sure they are addressed when the hardcovers (and hopefully ebooks) are released.

I look forward to seeing the character creation rules because the simplicity on the character sheets intrigued me. I want to see how my Wizard can gain more cantrips or my Cleric new orisons. What does multiclassing look like in Next? Will it finally be worthwhile to play a Cleric/Wizard?

I don’t know! But I look forward to finding out.

And until we do, I’m going to keep pushing for running through this D&D Next campaign–at least to level 3 because that’s how high the character sheets can be adjusted–and seeing how the free-flowing sandbox of a tabletop RPG works out.

Because my initial impressions are overwhelmingly positive. I get to play the character I want to, the way I want to, and I get to have some nifty tricks that aren’t possible using the stock ruleset of 4e. I can’t wait to see what’s…Next. Tee hee.

Have you played the D&D Next playtest? If so, what did you think about it? And if not, be sure to sign up with Wizards of the Coast and start freezing your own oozes.


By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.

1 comment

  1. I did enjoy it. I personally liked 4e better, but there are several factors that may not be considered when I say that. It wasn’t “my” character, maybe I was having an off night trying to RP, etc. I do like the structure that 4e gives, but I do see the world of potential with such an open rule set. I do hope to play it again to see what factors did affect my “performance”. I just had a hard time getting into it. I felt like I didn’t know what to do. BUT I am a very indecisive person, so maybe I relied to heavily on the power cards as my crutch for decision making.

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