I've been running a D&D 4e campaign for some time now. However, I've just recently begun some medical procedures that have inhibited my productivity, so that campaign is on hiatus. In lieu of that campaign, a friend of mine is running the group through a playtest of D&D Next (In case you are half asleep, that's the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons). We've played a few sessions and have managed to hit level two. While I'm not allowed to give out specific information about the playtest material, I figured I'd give my general impressions about what works, what doesn't work, and what fixes are needed. I'm going to going to start with the good stuff, and then list the stuff that still needs fixing.
The Good Stuff
There are five PC characters available for the playtest: One wizard, one rogue, one fighter, and two clerics (each with a different deity). I'll also comment on the mechanics of the game.
-The wizard can now cast its cantrips at-will. This is an immense improvement over low-level play in 3.5 or earlier, where spellcasters were basically lousy archers for all but twelve seconds of the day.
-There are 'remaining HP' limits on 'save or you're screwed' effects (such as the Sleep spell). This makes them killer against weak or injured enemies without ruining boss battles.
-The rogue gets a special ability that makes its skills more reliable. It allows your expert ninja character to always be an expert ninja instead of being a total clutz 5 to 10% of the time.
-The rogue gets a special communication ability that only works with other thieves. This could be super awesome if the campaign is designed to utilize it, or if there's another thief in the party. But otherwise it's rather pointless
-The fighter's damage output is really awesome. He's frequently one-shotting lesser foes
-There's a spell that lets you heal and attack in the same turn, which is something I always loved about 4e leader classes.
-This character is also the party defender (via a theme), and the defender ability works quite well without being a 4e mark effect.
-Like wizards, clerics now have at-will cantrips, though the battle cleric relies more on his melee attack
-This cleric is very much a healer, but some of his healing capability comes from his theme (so presumably someone could take that theme without being a cleric, thus alleviating the party's dependence on clerics)
-Another yay for at-will cantrips
-Despite being the party healer, the player isn't stuck constantly spending all his actions to heal people
-Instead of having half a dozen different bonuses/penalties floating around, you just get advantage/disadvantage. This really helps cut down on the ammount of on-the-fly math you need to do
-Players have what are basically healing surges (though I don't think they work well enough)
-There are four pieces to each character: Class, Race, Background, and Theme. Now the 'loremaster' is separated from the wizard, the 'sneak' is separated from the rogue, and so-forth. This should help customizability
-The above pieces help to separate in-combat resources from non-combat resources, which I hope will allow players to customize one without having to completely nerf the other
-There are nowhere near as many reactions, which helps speed up combat. In fact, combat is nice and fast now
-To-hit and defenses don't scale so quickly, so enemies will remain relevant longer
-Monsters are no longer bags of HP
The Bad Stuff
The stuff that still needs fixing.
-Vancian spellcasting is back (but only for wizards, not for clerics). I've always hated this kind of spellcasting, though at least they limited the number of spells known
-Combat and non-combat spells use the same spell slots, so prepping for one tends to nerf the other
-There's a ritual system where wizards can spend money to cast the utility spells they didn't prepare (because they prepared combat spells). I suspect this will work about as well as the 4e ritual system, which was typically ignored because money was used on magic items.
-Saving throws are back. This wouldn't be a bad thing at all, except that there are several things that nerf your attacks (being drunk, wearing armor you aren't proficient with, etc) that do nothing to spells that call for saving throws. This seems like a huge oversight. Whenever something gives you disadvantage on attacks, it also needs to grant your enemies advantage on saving throws against your spells. That way casters won't be able to ignore what should be serious drawbacks.
-Even accounting for the fact that wizards are supposed to be squishy, their AC is too low. This is especially bad after the other characters buy better armor.
-This game's 'advantage' isn't as common as the 'combat advantage' of yesteryear, so sneak attack is harder to achieve. The only way I've managed it reliably is through stealth. Unfortunately, making this work in melee relies on the character's theme. This means that playing a melee rogue who isn't the super-stealthy type is going to suck. Melee rogues need their class to give them a somewhat reliable source of advantage.
-The fighter hits as hard as the rogue when the rogue has sneak attack activated. This is ridiculous. Either boost the rogue's damage or tone down the fighter's a bit.
-The commoner background (which the rogue has) feels completely useless next to the other backgrounds showcased.
-There are no rules for charges or opportunity attacks. Combine this with the fighter and battle cleric being dwarves (so low speed) and you get melee characters who can't keep anyone in melee. They just get kited to death. We had to house-rule in charge and OA for the melee guys in order to make them playable against ranged enemies.
-The fighter doesn't seem to do anything outside of combat. I think this is a serious problem which has plagued D&D for a long time.
-In fact, the fighter doesn't have many in-combat options either. The fighter is powerful enough, but he only ever does the same thing over and over again. And his daily power just lets him do that same thing a few extra times.
-As with the fighter, we had to house-rule ways for this guy to keep enemies in melee with him.
-The spell that lets you heal and attack doesn't heal reliably enough (it's one die with no bonus, so you might just heal 1HP with it).
-Somehow being the defender doesn't boost this guy's HP (he has less than the fighter, who's a striker)
-The healer theme (which this cleric has) allows you to craft potions and healing kits. This basically means that if the party doesn't have someone with healing spells, they have to fork over a bunch of money. I don't think this is a very good idea.
-Despite having what are basically healing surges, nobody has access to them during a fight. This means that in-combat, you're reliant on potions (money) or clerics to heal you.
-The 'healing surges' heal fairly random ammounts, which is annoying (the randomness doesn't really add much when they're only useable outside of combat).
-The total healing available from the 'healing surges' is somewhere around half to three-fourths your max hp per day. This means that if the game is built around X encounters per day, only the last one or two can pose any serious threat of death. It would be better to let players recover several times their maximum health (per day) while outside of combat. That way, you could throw seriously dangerous stuff at them without forcing an extended rest immediately after the fight.
-If the designers want to drop charges and opportunity attacks, they need some other method for melee characters to close distance and keep foes engaged.
-The range on bows is waaaaaaay too long
-Character pieces aren't split up enough. Fighters still get more HP than everyone else, even when they aren't the defender. Clerics still have healing even when they aren't the healer. I have no idea how the rogue would function without the 'super-stealthy' theme. I think this hinders the customizability potential of having themes. Why have 'defender' be a theme if only certain classes can make any use of it? Wouldn't it be better for the 'defender' theme to give you everything you need to be a defender, including armor and health?
-Now that I mention it, it seems that only the caster classes really stand on their own as classes. It's only the cleric and the wizard that look like they could still work well without any theme at all. The rogue desperately needs his theme to function, and while the fighter could function with a different theme, he would be quite subpar if he had no theme at all. I think this is a serious problem.
So there you have it, my first impression of the D&D Next playtest material. We'll be continuing with the playtest campaign for the next three or four weeks, and I may make another post (or just update this one) if something remarkable happens. Until then, happy gaming!