Since Mike’s post is mostly a run down of the changes in the latest playtest packet, I’m going to follow the same format, focusing on the new classes.
This take on the druid is interesting. Actually, the idea of the druid in generally is interesting—it’s a class that means some very specific things to people, and blending them all together tends to just muddy the water.
Historically, D&D druids haven’t always had shapeshifting. The idea of the druid as a shapeshifter is a more recent invention, but one that has become the defining feature of the class to many people. To quote my friend Stras: “Shapeshifting is awesome. It’s the literal enablement of that idea that when someone pisses you the hell off, you don’t just give them the finger, you get two tons heavy, roar like a grizzly, and rip them a new one. Also some people like being kittens. Or ponies. I don’t judge.”
Shapeshifting is one of those sticky mental ideas that can be all you need to hear about a class. The freedom from our static mortal forms is an enticing idea not just as a powerful tool, but the sheer wish fulfillment of not being beholden to biology.
With that in mind, this druid’s shapeshifting is maybe a little locked down. At first level if I focus on shapeshifting I can turn into a hound or a bear twice per day for a few hours at a time. That is kind of a bare-minimum freedom-from-form. I can slip the surly bonds of biology, but only to a couple of other prescribed forms. Every couple of levels past that up to 10th I get new forms, adding up to:
- Great Cat
- Dire Beast (i.e. “Dire” + another form)
- Bird of Prey
- Behemoth (a.k.a. dinosaur)
- Enhanced Form (i.e. another form plus an enhancement chosen from a list)
On the one hand, this list covers the bases—you’ve got domesticated animals, wild animals, fish, birds, reptiles, and small animals. On the other, since each of these forms is given exact stats, it feels a bit more like just choosing an alternate set of numbers than really becoming something wild.
The problem with shapeshifting is that the defining factor of it is freedom from shape, which is a powerful ability to grant at low levels. That either leaves the ability significantly limited or only available at higher levels. Next is in a bit of a corner here: one answer would be to allow more free-form shifting but add a downside to it, but the design direction seems to be that all class abilities are unambiguous benefits. Another answer might be to use “freeform shapeshfiting” as the baseline for first level, but that would lose some of the audience they’re aiming for—it wouldn’t fit in well with the poor-shmucks-in-a-death-dungeon genre.
With those constraints this is a pretty solid implementation. The stats are easy enough to read and swap, you don’t have to pick through the entire monster manual for the write up of a given creature—its very workable and still delivers some of the promise of losing your form.
The other druid abilities are fairly stock. Some spells (and the option to focus on them), reduced aging, taking on a different appearance. A few abilities are so focused that they seem like they’ll either be a huge deal or completely ignored, like Evergreen: if you’re playing a long term game of kingdom management the reduced aging is a huge deal, otherwise it might not even be worth writing down. There’s nothing wrong with abilities like this, but if the goal is to give each class something interesting at each level they might need rethinking (or at least another option).
When I first saw ‘oaths’ as a class ability I was filled with ideas. The idea of the paladin as the oath-swearer is powerful and interesting, and I imagined the things a paladin swears to having power (and restriction).1 Oaths are actually just ways of including paladins of different alignment (always lawful, but potentially good, neutral, or evil). The paladin starts with some spells, a decent attack bonus, the ability to use Charisma for all saves, and a 1/day ability where the exact effects are chosen based on oath—good paladins do extra damage, heal, or drive off undead.
This is kind of an oddity for the paladin class historically: it actually looks less interesting than being just a fighter or just a cleric. Compared to the fighter you get a couple of spells per day and a 1/day ability, but lose out on combat maneuvers. Compared to a cleric you get a better attack bonus and some different divine abilities, but lose out on one spell per day and seriously lose out on long-term spell advancement. I’m at a loss for what a paladin actually does that’s any different from what a fighter does or what a cleric does. Their only really unique abilities are detecting planar creatures at will and using Charisma for all their saves, which are sadly reactionary abilities.
The paladin’s mount is given a complete stat block which can be a bit of a beast to wrestle with in play—the paladin’s player has basically opted in to running two characters at once when mounted. The one standout here is the bit about summoning a mount:
To call your mount, you partake in a religious ceremony from dawn to sunset or sunset to dawn. At the ceremony’s conclusion, a magical summons reaches across the world—even across the planes—in search of a creature of great splendor to join you on your quests. Such a creature appears voluntarily 24 hours later.
This stuff hits me square in the playstyle. It’s entirely within the fiction of the game, it provokes a reaction from the players (“so what is this ritual you’re doing like?”), it gives the DM a tool for building adventures. Sure, the payoff is running two characters at once for middling mechanical benefit, but the process of getting there is cool.
All together the paladin class doesn’t do much for me. It’s a second-rate spell caster that has very little in the way of active abilities. The only things that set the paladin apart from a fighter or cleric are mostly passive.
The ranger is another class where one of the abilities it’s most known for can have some serious problems. The idea of a favored enemy sounds cool at first—of course the hunting tracking ranger is going to be good at hunting something in particular—but in practice it can be a bit of a pain.
Consider a ranger with favored enemy (goblinoids), where the favored enemy ability basically gives them +x vs. goblinoids. This basically creates two states for the ranger: either they’re fighting goblinoids, in which case they’re at the top of their game (possibly better than other classes?). Or they’re fighting non-goblinoids, in which case they’re second-best (or worse). The change between these states isn’t based on anything the ranger actually does, it’s just down to the world they live in. If goblinoids are in season this ranger is awesome, otherwise their biggest ability doesn’t do much. A DM choice switches the ranger between being cool or not cool.
All of that is why this favored enemy implementation is pretty slick: instead of getting a bonus vs. your favored enemy the ranger gets abilities that help them fight creatures of a certain type based on what those creatures do. Dragons have fear effects, so dragon-hunting rangers resist fear. Humanoids tend to attack in numbers, so a goblin-hunting ranger can move more easily through dense combats. Instead of the favored enemy bonus being directly against a type of creature, its against the type of things that creature does. That way if dragons aren’t on the menu today the ranger still can use all their dragon-hunting training.2
Beyond the favored enemy the class is a little flat. They get paladin-scale spellcasting, tracking, and a fighter-level attack bonus to start with. They pick up a few other non-favored-enemy abilities, though the only one worth mentioning is the oddly-detailed camouflage. The ranger gets this ability at level 5 (which means stuff that helps you kill dragons comes before the ability to cover yourself with mud and sticks) and it’s one of those weird abilities that doesn’t seem like an ability:
You can use dirt, mud, and plant matter to craft camouflage for yourself, allowing you to blend into your surroundings like many beasts do. Benefit: You can spend 1 minute camouflaging yourself, allowing you to hide even without concealment. You must be in a natural environment, and you must have access to mud, dirt, plants, soot, and other naturally occurring materials with which to create your camouflage. After spending 1 minute camouflaging yourself, you can hide by pressing yourself up against a solid surface that is at least as tall and wide as you are. You are automatically hidden from all creatures as long as you remain motionless there, not moving and taking no actions.
The last bit is a little unclear to me. If being “automatically hidden” means anyone trying to find you makes some kind of check, this is a non-ability: I don’t see why any 1st level character couldn’t say the same thing and get the same effect. If “automatically hidden” means you cannot be detected by any means, the ability actually means something, but the name is misleading—it might be clearer as “perfect camouflage” or something.
The new spells are pretty much par for the course: a few seem like clearly in-world things, a few seem like someone had a checkbox for “deal x damage at y level” that they needed to fill. If you’re looking for something a little crazy, check out the page-long description of Earthquake. Now imagine the first time someone casts that in play and everyone stops to read a page of text and figure out what just happened.
I love math more than the next guy, most likely, but juggling numbers here doesn’t require much explanation. Some numbers are higher! Others are lower!
Expertise dice just got a lot less cool.
Before they were an elegant expression of being a person who didn’t rely on spells or charged up abilities. The fighter had a certain amount of expertise to spread around all the things they wanted to do. It felt like, well, being a skilled combatant.
Now they’re encounter powers with the option to spend an entire turn recovering them.
I’m not a fan. I’m sure that the change was to balance damage and reduce complexity, but the side effect is that used to be a grounded fictional representation of being good in a fight is now a 4E encounter power. Positioning the fighter to have abilities that recharge at the end of a fight lessens the coolness of being the person who survives on skill and toughness. The cleric and wizard may run out of spells, but as long as the fighter has an HP and a weapon they can stand strong.
This is a general downside to making the signature thing a class does x/day or x/encounter: it means that a good part of the time you’re not doing the cool stuff you signed up for in the class. The upside to limited abilities like this is that they create resource management—sure, we can forge on, but the cleric doesn’t have any healing, is that a good idea? I tend to see the fighter’s shtick as being the non-resource-manager. They don’t rely on magic, they’re always ready to fight. The old expertise dice did a great job of that, the new ones not so much.
The change here is in presentation: instead of “Make a Wisdom check” “Does my listen skill apply?” “Sure” the phrasing is now more like “Make a wisdom check to listen.”
In some ways those are different things. They first one is a bonus the player has and can lobby for on any given check. It can be something skilled—like acrobatics, say—or it could be something that isn’t truly a skill, like “sharp senses.”
The second one is a DM-described type of action, but with the flexibility to use different stats. It’s more like 3E skills, where they describe ways to interact with the world.
Both of those are interesting useful game widgets, but they’re fairly different. The fact that D&D Next is still moving between them is interesting. It seems like they really want something called “skills” in the game, but they don’t know what that thing should do/be. I’m interested to see how this plays out.
Two Weapon Fighting
In a shift from most D&D editions, any character will be able to fight with two weapons and have it be equally useful as fighting with one big weapon or a weapon and a shield. It’s actually kind of a great idea: if you want to make a character who fights with two weapons you probably don’t want to have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to make that a playable option. Making it playable out of the gate, and allowing specialization with abilities, is slick.
Cool, a better name.
There’s been some improvements to races, but they still don’t do much for me. Or much at all, really. The “short and stout” dwarves are stout because they have, on average, 1 more Constitution than the average elf. For most starting scores that difference doesn’t actually effect anything in the game. If you want to be a really stout dwarf you’ll be a hill dwarf and get a whole 1 extra hit point.
These aren’t bad, they just don’t do much. Being a dwarf or an elf or a human is surprisingly interchangeable, especially given how long the writeups are.
Including subraces as a default is interesting. It brings in some setting elements that I’m sure some people love, but it means the elf proliferation has started in the core book. Elves are always picking up subraces (winged elves, aquatic elves, etc.), now they don’t even have to wait for a supplement to do it.
Either I missed them, they forgot them again, or they’re not very interesting.
#What’s Next The new classes they’ve added are pretty solid, for the most part. The game is certainly continuing to grow, though I wonder about the proliferation of content so early on. There are already more classes, races, and spells than I think I could use, and the priority appears to be on adding more. Mike talked a few weeks ago about not wanting to continually churn out new powers, abilities, races, and classes, and I hope that applies to the core rules as well. There’s more than enough here to get people started with D&D, maybe it’s time to start improving what’s there.
Yes, I was probably influenced by the Dungeon World paladin here. ↩
Tangentially, the idea of a first level character who hunts dragons is interesting. It tends to peg the game as a little more heroic—your character could start the game having already killed dragons. I probably wouldn’t use it for my games. ↩