Review: August Playtest Package

The new 5th Edition playtest package was released on August 2nd. Let’s talk about it.

Playtester Fatigue

In one of those odd little ironies of life, Morrus of ENWorld fame started a poll on Playtester Fatigue the day before the package dropped. Half the respondents say they’ve stopped playtesting. The two year process is rather long: we’re a year-and-a-half into the test, a full year from seeing the final material and things are still in perpetual flux.

It’s hard to maintain excitement and interest for two years and tricky to run a long campaign with an unfinished system that changes every two months. Two years is a long time to ask people to hold off on starting new campaigns. D&D us a hobby and the playtest is asking people to put aside their hobby to test a game. Even if its free this is a big thing to ask your audience. I’m not surprised many people have given up on testing. Life is busy and many people can only get together to play once a month. Spending every other session relearning the rules is the anti-fun.

I think the lack of hard progress does not help matters. I’m sure the staff at Wizards feels like progress has been made and has surveys with numbers showing increased satisfaction. They likely have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t and know how to combine elements into a better package. However, the rest of us don’t see this so this first year of testing has really felt more like concept testing and less like playtesting. The rules are in a constant and heavy state of flux, especially the classes. The fighter has been radically reworked four times. It’s hard to feel like the game is actually being fine-tuned when every two months you have to relearn a class from scratch.

We’ve also been testing the same rough material for the year, with the exception of the seven added classes (five of which remain). We still have not seen the multiclassing rules, tactical rules, hireling/pet rules, legendary monsters, etc. Rules modules need to be balanced as well, especially big ones like the tactical rules, multiclassing, and the like.

How to Play

Just a grab-bag of thoughts here.

Ability Checks: The new packages retains the arrangement of former skill lumped into the Ability Check section of the How-to-Play guide. While this makes sense as skills are non-core and optional (and all but removed from this playtest) it does bloat the initial chunk of the rules. With the exception of Constitution each ability score receives a full page of text. And Con is smaller because its uses are not broken down and expanded (not being text cut-and-pasted from the older Skill document).

Advantage & Disadvantage: I dislike the reliance on advantage & disadvantage for any and all combat modifiers. Advantage is a lovely tool DMs can use to award creative thought and other on-the-fly situational bonuses. It’s handy for after-the-fact bonuses and cinematic moments when attacks simply should have hit. And its a lovely counterpart to the “DM’s best friend” aka a +2 to checks.

But while I love advantage and disadvantage it’s become a crutch. Certain things should just grant a bonus and there should be more possibilities for stacking bonuses. Any time something is common enough that it might have a separate line on a character sheet it can have a flat bonus (raging versus not raging, charging attacks, the great weapon power attack). Any time a bonus from a spell or power or class feature modifies confers a bonus that lasts for an entire combat (or two or three) it should provide a flat benefit as the modifier can be written down on the character sheet or a post-it note. Penalties that apply for a couple rounds can be written down on a scrap piece of paper.

And because one cancels out the other it’s possible to get absurd situations like the encumbered barbarian that has been blinded, knocked prone, and grappled by a monster that is hindering her attacks. She throws her javelin a long range hundred feet across the room at the sorceress who spent her turn dodging. But because the barbarian decides to rage she takes no penalty on the attack and attacks normally.

Aid, Hinder & Dodge: An example of the above, aiding an ally should not always just provide advantage. Two people working together should have a better chance of success, yes. But they should also be able to accomplish more than two people working independant. And three people working together should have an even better chance. I’d like to see Aid grant the character aiding the option of granting advantage or +1 to the check. Ditto Hinder, which could provide a -1. And something like dodge should actually make you harder to hit not just change the odds.

It’s a pain in the butt to forget small situational modifiers and have to reverse the game and retcon what happened. But if you spend your entire action doing something (Aiding, Dodging) it’s much more likely to be remembered.

Stealth: These rules need a little clarification as you cannot step out from behind cover and remain stealthed. You technically cannot dash from hiding place to hiding place. Stealth also references being “obscured” but the rules for being “obscured” no longer exist.

Critical Hits: Crits feel a little weak. While it does increase average damage the potential damage might be less. Over the course of a campaign it works out to a damage increase but in play you only remember the times you rolled snake eyes on a crit. As you add a die, on average a crit might only deal 2.5-6.5 more damage (d4 to d12). In contrast the Great Weapon Master feat lets you make an attack with a -5 penalty and add an extra die and your Str mod to the damage.

Force Damage: I’ve never liked force damage. Too few effects really deal force damage and its description just sounds like weapon damage from a magical source. The spectral object battering a target is a force effect dealing bludgeoning damage and the spiritual weapon of a longsword is a force effect dealing slashing damage. Spells aren’t even consistent: the blade barrier spell describes “blades of magical force” but the spell deals slashing damage. Dump force and just clarify in the four spells that deal force damage that it can affect incorporeal creatures.

Knocking a Creature Out: This rule is simple but it grates at me. I dislike the idea of stunning monsters with a fireball and it makes taking the villain alive a little too easy. It shouldn’t be hard to keep someone alive to question but it shouldn’t be automatic or effortless. Tracking lethal versus non-lethal damage was always a pain but there has to be another way. Maybe there could be a “pulling punches” option where you deal half damage but if you reduce the creature to 0 it isn’t dead.

Resting: Short rests still aren’t so short. But there are fewer “encounter” powers that recharge after a short rest, and I imagine they’re trying to move away from the 4e concept of stopping and resting after every fight. Which does make for an odd narrative.

Prone: Sniping does not work in 5e as being prone grants you disadvantage on all attack rolls, not just melee. So hiding in the tall underbrush of a grassy knoll with your heavy crossbow won’t help.

Invisible: Invisible references the missing “obscured” rules. It also makes reference to invisibility being defeated by the creature making noise. But since there’s no separation between Spot and Listen checks without skills, Invisibility confers no real bonus to Stealth; any reasonably wise person will automatically be able to hear as well as they see and thus detect a sneaking invisible creature.

Spells: I’d really like it if the game clarified how loud and clearly you need to speak to cast a spell. Most spells require you to “chant mystic words” but can you do this subtly so it looks you’re mumbling to yourself homeless man style or not alert a guard? Or does it have to be clearly said in a normal speaking voice?

Character Creation

With no 1st level feats customizing characters is going to be hard. This is especially awkward as most bonuses from a subclass don’t kick in until 3rd level. So two dwarf fighters will look and play pretty darn similar for their first two levels even if one is thinking about being a damage-dealing two-handed brute and the other a defensive tank with a shield. Characters are defined by their Background and equipment, but likely they could swap equipment and be equally effective.

However, the designers increased point-buy from 27 to 30 and removed the class-based stat bonuses. It wouldn’t be hard to reduce point buy again and give every class an ability score boost at 1st level. And thus a potential feat.

Races

Races haven’t changed much again. Unsurprising as the classes seem to get the lion’s share of the design. We’re not even seeing the lore for the three new races.

Gnomes: There really needs to be a third sub-race. They’re trying to squeeze the three major gnomish archetypes into two subraces. The three types of gnome are the Dragonlance tinkerer gnomes, the dwarf-like 1e-2e illusionist gnomes, and the elf-like 4e gnomes. There are also the 3.5e gnomes that were kinda the 1-2e gnomes with “bards” tacked on, halfway between the 1-2e and 4e gnomes.

The forest gnome fits best as the 3e/4e bardic fey gnome. It should get a boost to Charisma and some other minor power that suits bards but works as a general power for mages. Maybe even the 4e invisibility power, perhaps downplayed as some camouflage or enchantment. The rock gnome is the classic name of the 1e/2e gnome and it should get the the illusion cantrip and similar earthy vibe. The tinkerer gnome should be its own separate thing, possibly held back for a Dragonlance article.

Half-Elves: This race is poor. They get most of the same bonuses as the elf (low-light vision, advantage to spot & listen, and advantage to avoid being charmed or sleep vs immunity). But in place of the full immunity to sleep & charm, weapon training, trancing, and the sub-race bonuses half-elves get… the ability to choose where their second stat bump goes.

Let’s compare a high elf wizard and a half elf wizard. They likely have the same Intelligence, and the half-elf is more charismatic but the high elf is more agile. They speak the same number of languages and have equal sense. But the high elf sleeps less, has the full immunities, knows how to use swords and bows, and gets an extra cantrip from the wizard list.

Half-elves also need a subrace like all the other races. This way they can add new subraces to modify half-elves for various campaign settings, such as Dark Sun or Dragonlance. There could be a difference between half-elves raised by elves or raised by humans. Or there could be a difference between high half-elves, wood half-elves, or even drow half-elves.

Half-Orc: Yawn. Nothing really special here. Again, like the half-elf there needs to be a subrace so half-orcs can be differentiated in different worlds. While half-orcs are traditionally the strong simple race, the race for people who just want to smash stuff and play simple fighters, there’s no reason for them to be so bland. We have humans for that.

Given them a variant of the relentless ability orcs have. Or a call-back to Furious Assault from 4e. Or the ability to avoid death, maybe adding a bonus to Death Saves.

Human: With the option for classes to exchange two +1s for a feat why not allow the humans to do the same and swap the +1s for either physical or mental stats for a bonus feat? As a sidebar or option with the Feats this might be nice.

Classes

Once again, the playtest focuses on the classes.

What’s with the shading in the class table? It’s odd and inconsistent. Is there a reason?

I like the return of multiple attacks to martial classes. In a game based around being able to throw mobs of low level opponents at parties, having weapon users stuck to single-target attacks was painful and overly favoured spell-casters. However, the clarification that you can move between attacks in every entry is annoying.

Barbarian: I like the addition of the bonus to critical hits. Barbarians hitting hard works. The subclasses work nicely, with the simple non-magical barbarian and the more primal spiritual barbarian.

Rage. I hate rage just granting advantage on strength-based attacks. Advantage works best as a situational bonus, not as a bonus from class features. The invisible barbarian should be scarier than the visible barbarian. Given their attack bonus is less than the fighter’s give them a flat +1 or +2 bonus to attack rolls. The damage bonus from raging seems rather low; I haven’t been seeing a lot of ways for damage to increase at higher levels so high level combats might get up there in rounds. I wonder if barbarians should be prevented from making lore checks while raging.

Cleric: Oh man, I can see people raging against Divine Intervention and some pretty heavy abuse. It’s cool but there should be a limit, such as not having an effect more potent than a spell one level higher than the highest the cleric can cast. Otherwise every level after 10 clerics will spent every free day praying for for the Divine Intervention of “make me a demigod” or “smite the Big Bad of the campaign” or “I’d love a belt of storm giant strength”.

I like Religious Study granting a choice of lore rather than just religious. And I like the bonus to saving throws being tied to presenting a holy symbol (and the addition that it can be on your shield).

Druid: Uncertain how I feel about Wild Shape being pushed back to 2nd level. I suppose it made the druid too frontloaded. But the idea of playing a combat Moon druid and not being able to use your signature power for one level and not getting your combat power until 6th is annoying.

Shape of the rodent needs a climb speed. As the stealthy scouting shape this is the form used to sneak into places. But with a set Strength score of 5 the rodent is rocking a -3 to all climb checks.

I love the land focus on the circle druid. The spellcasting druid definitely seems potent given it’s gaining more uses of its spellcasting rather than a situational power: extra 3rd and 4th-level spells. This is pretty powerful when it already has the same spellcasting as the cleric. It might be better to have the base druid have fewer spells than the cleric and the circle of the land increases its power to cleric levels. That way the circle of the moon doesn’t have all the spellcasting of a cleric and the ability to wild shape into bears.

Fighter: Redesigned again?!? It’s really hard to tell if the fighter is becoming balanced if it keeps changing. You can’t tell if something is not working because it doesn’t work or you don’t know the rules well enough or you’re misremembering an old rule.

Defy Death is problematic with the current dying rules. So long as an attack does not deal 49-50 damage the fighter doesn’t drop. And at level 13 they have advantage. Get a 20 Con and attacks need to do 125 damage to kill even an average rolling L13 fighter and she succeeds her check on a “10+” with advantage (only 20% chance of failure).

Speaking of Indomitable, this is a great example of the overuse of advantage. It’s a constant ability that could be reflected in a +2 bonus written on the character sheet but instead it’s advantage. Which means that the fighter trying to make the Wisdom saving throw against the magic of the high level wizard might need to roll an 16 to succeed (darn dump stats). Even with advantage that’s still only a 45% chance. And since she already has advantage there is nothing the party can do to help her make the save.

The fighter subclasses really seem like each class is trying to reinvent the wheel. You have the gladiator granting superiority dice, the knight granting expertise dice, and the warrior not getting much at all. I imagine this is so they can have advanced subclasses that have more fighter powers and super simple fighters, so there’s the gladiator with maneuvers (which leaves them free to add more gladiator maneuvers) or the warrior that just crits more. But it makes fighters seem… inconsistent.

The defender power of the knight is a little screwy. If a creature attacks an ally within 5 feet of you, you burn your reaction and impose disadvantage but it can attack you to negate the disadvantage. However, if it attacks you, you regain your reaction and can then use the same power to impose disadvantage on the creature. So, really, the power should just read “you can use your reaction to grant disadvantage on a creature that attacks you or an ally within 5 feet.” Or, really, “you can use Hinder as a reaction when a creature attacks you or an ally within 5 feet.”

The Path of the Warrior is pretty darn weak. Improved Critical is nice but won’t make any difference 90% of the time. And it amounts to an extra d6-d10. Doing the math, assuming the warrior hits half the time (11+) one out of every ten hits will be the expanded crit. If she has a middle-of-the-road weapon this is an extra d8 damage (4.5 average dmg) every ten hits, or an average of 0.45 damage per attack. And at 7th level this increases to a whopping 0.9 dmg. Not exactly setting the power curve. This is very likely the result of powers that sounded good on paper recalling the potency of 4e crits or crits from prior packages.

Mage: The class formerly known as the wizard. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: why the rename? Likely to make it easier to work the sorcerer into the class as a subclass or alternate class. Mage was the name of the “wizard” class in 2e so this is a bit retro. And it allows “wizardry” to be used for class features and as a flavourful description of magic.

We continue to have the “screw the 5-minute workday” power of Arcane Recovery (although it’s not on the class table) and it’s unclear how it works with a short rest.

As an oddity, mages get scribe scroll and brew potion. Odd as scribe scroll is the 6th level feature and brew potions is the 10th level feature, yet the treasure table in the DM file have even chances of uncommon magic items being potions or scrolls. Shouldn’t scrolls be more common and frequent if they’re available four levels sooner? Scrolls are also limited to 3rd level which raises the question where higher level spell scrolls come from? Or is the only way to find new spells of 4th level or above by stealing spellbooks?

Brew potion is poorly written. Rather that make use of the uncommon/ rarer potion categories it lists all possible potions in two lists: potions that equal 1 potion and potions that equal 4 potions. It also means potions not on the list cannot be brewed, even if they’re wizard spells. This makes it tricky to add new potions.

Copying spells into your spellbook remains expensive. A single spell can wipe out an entire level’s worth of money.

I’m not sure what happens when a level 8 illusionist doesn’t know invisibility

Monk: Ki is suddenly an Encounter resource. Interesting. It totally fits.

I find it interesting that a level 12 monk that spends a ki point can theoretically fall from orbit and survive.

I wonder if a level 12 monk can still be a drunken master.

Given the monk is South East Asian it’s a little odd it doesn’t use the Eastern five elements.

Undaunted Strike is a rather lame power. “Spend 1 ki point to not be penalized for not using weapons.” It might be better to have unarmed strikes treated as magic while the monk has 1 unspent ki, and spend the ki for a boost. Maybe a damage spike. A single super attack ala Iron Fist.

Paladin: I like divine sense. It keeps the flavour of detecting evil without bypassing plot.

Having Holy Smite be tied to a paladin order feels odd. It’s such an iconic power. Ditto the immunity to disease.

It’s hard to judge the paladin without knowing the other orders. If they’re similar to the warden and blackguard from the last package it might be better to “pull a Mage” and rename the class the cavalier and make the “paladin” a subclass of that. Given iconic pally powers are in the subclass this might be the best fit.

Ranger: I’ve never been the biggest fan of rangers casting spells. Let alone at low levels.

Tying fighting style to favoured enemy is clunky and will make adding more favoured enemy options harder as there are far more types of enemy than fighting styles. Rangers could easily have two separate options of customization: fighting style and favoured enemy. Spellcasters get to customize by subclass and spell selection, and this is less complicated.

As it is the favoured enemy bonuses are, well, terrible. There’s nothing dragon specific in its style (arguably excluding Uncanny Dodge which is handy against breath weapons, but no breath weapon exclusive).

I like the inclusion of Natural Explorer and the exploration rules being worked into classes. But autosuccesses are uninteresting. Track also has this problem. Autosuccess just means there’s no chance to excel and get better than just a base success.

Rogue: After much time fighting it, sneak attack returns to the baseline rogue. I imagine they could still make a variant that swaps it out. The phrasing is awkward though. They’ve returned to advantage being required but also allow “an enemy of the target” to allow sneak attack. Are three-way fights so common they need to be assumed in the rogue entry?

Trap Expertise is weird. Rogues get to add their expertise dice to checks to find and remove traps. But removing traps is a Dex check so they could anyway. So it’s really just finding traps.

I like that Ace in the Hole has become a capstone power instead of the only power above level 10. The revision to the rogue (and the fighter) to give them interesting powers across all levels is nice. While fixing dead levels is easy, it was distracting.

Feats

I like the change to feats making them these big impressive things that confer a number of bonuses. 3e and 4e style feats work because you get them so often. The little minor feats were unsatisfying in 5e when they were received so rarely. I really enjoy big feats that used to be an entire prestige class, like Arcane Archer. Really, at this point the concept is strong we just need more examples. A fighter can easily take seven feats and there’s barely seven fighter-worthy feats.

I like the ease of either taking stat boosts or feats, although the frequency of ability boosts for some classes make it awkward, mostly due to the cap on ability scores. It might be easy to hit cap on a couple key ability scores and be stuck picking which dump stat to bump. (Although I’d love a scaling cap based on level, with no stat being higher than 15 before race at character creation, no stat higher than 18 at low levels and no stat higher than 20 after level 11.)

As mentioned earlier it would be nice to have a feat at 1st level for some customization.

I like having a baseline power for feats. Before it was always awkward measuring the potency of new feats, and knowing how good a feat should be. It’s great to have a benchmark for expected feat power.

Because feats are so new it’s forgivable that the mechanics of some are shaking the wording of most is poor. The “lucky points” in Lucky are clunky. There’s something odd about taking the Arcane Initiate feat and then being free to choose Wis to cast those spells. The marking of Tactical Warrior is needless emulation of 4e terminology, and might be easier just impose the penalty and then mention this feat doesn’t stack with itself. Plus it has the verisimilitude problem of 4e marking, where the creature moves away and you cannot affect it yet it’s somehow hindered by you.

Backgrounds

Not much to say about backgrounds. While 5e touted it was going to focus on the three elements of character creation (race, class, and background/theme) they’ve certainly only focused on classes. I don’t think they’ve done any revision to backgrounds at all, save removing and revising how skills/lore works. With classes not granting any differentiation until 3rd level or higher backgrounds might be one of the few ways to differentiate characters of the same race/class combo.

It’s interesting how many Backgrounds have a benefit that amounts to “people will let you crash on their couch.”

Conclusion

This package brings changes and more changes but no real progress. It’s hard to say if the game is closer to done than it was six or even nine months ago. There are improvements (and there are problems) but there can always be more improvements. You can revise a game endlessly, continually making small tweaks and revisions and then even more tweaks and revisions to fix problems created by the last wave of tweaks and revisions.

There are more classes and races in the last couple packages, but that’s not a great reflection on the completeness of the baseline Core Game and its Big Four classes and races. We keep hearing about these great ideas on the website, in articles and blogposts, but so far multiclassing, legendary monsters, and rules modules are vapourware.